Polina Marinova of the Profile thinks that good writing requires good editing, nuance is important, and intentionally emphasises the faults in people
Profile of Polina of the Profile
Polina writes The Profile, which is where people go to learn from the most successful people and companies every Sunday morning. She previously wrote Term Sheet at Fortune, and also worked at CNN, and USA Today.
The full talk is here, and you can check out notes for the event below, covering:
- Polina’s thoughts on writing
- Polina’s thoughts on profiling
- Other interesting points that came up during the conversation
If you want to know Polina’s most important writing tip, the types of people she looks for, and her grand vision for the Profile, read on.
1. On writing
Good writing requires good editing
In Polina’s first ever profile piece for Fortune, three out of five pages in her draft were completely cancelled by her editor Pattie Sellers.  After she overcame her shock and rewrote it though, the piece was indeed significantly better.
In part because of this, Polina now thinks:
I think iteration, editing, cutting, all that is a very beautiful part of the creative process
I always try to read it out loud to someone else, because your eyes will skip over mistakes but when you’re reading you’ll catch them
Getting feedback can be tough. Polina reminds herself that her editors have her best interests at heart, and wouldn’t be hard on her if they didn’t think she could handle it. Writers are often in the weeds and can miss obvious points. Handling feedback does get better over time.
I’d like to add on that most writers love getting feedback on their work, both good and bad . Knowing that someone cared enough to respond is pretty neat.
Don’t write in absolutes
Another editor gave her the advice “I can tell your thinking is sloppy therefore your writing is also sloppy.” If you see the world in black and white, you’ll miss the nuance of actual life. The best stories she’s read are full of nuance and specific detail.
That’s powerful because you’re able to back everything up. For example, when you write something like “nobody liked the CEO,” you lose credibility with the reader because they know that’s objectively false.
If you are able to be precise in your thinking and the words you use, you’re going to stand out from everyone else.
I’d caveat that this takes a long time to pay off. For example, how many people posting about GPT-3 a few months ago actually bothered to read the paper it was based on? By actually doing the work you can make more precise arguments that make a more compelling case.
When to stop adding detail
Sometimes we also add too much detail. Polina likes to send draft pieces to friends that don’t know what she’s writing about to see if she added too much detail.
That said, she prefers gathering more detail upfront rather than less, since you can always delete after.
There’s a misconception that writing is sitting around waiting to be inspired. Polina says:
I’ve never been inspired. Never once in my life have I sat down and been like oh yeah I’m inspired to write, my muse is here. I think it’s just typing and it’s ugly and it’s horrible and I can barely look at it on a page but then going back and massaging it [is what makes a great piece]
In her view, the most important thing is to just start writing.
The advice here is simple but not easy. People don’t like hearing that to improve at writing is to write more; they want shortcuts to get good. I say this while up at night drinking tea to finish this very article in time. Just. Start. Writing.
Flexibility of form
Polina’s take on creativity and formats:
You shouldn’t think about the format, you should think about the story, what you want to do and tell, and the experience you want the reader to have. The format will come out of that e.g. there wasn’t a format like humans of new york or alinea before they created the category
People will tell you they like reading one thing, but end up reading a totally different thing
This goes back to the popular “if you asked they’d have wanted a faster horse” anecdote. I do think finding your own path is possible, and would caveat it’s a long and difficult process. For every HONY there’s a thousand instagram influencers trying to do their own thing. For every alinea there’s dozens of chefs creating crummy cuisine
Finding support networks
Polina thinks that you should get two groups for support in your writing journey:
- Find groups where your desired behaviour is the normal. For example, she’s in a business writers group where she can bounce ideas and get feedback 
- Family and friends that can act as brakes so you don’t go off the deep end
For finding the former type of groups, she’s curated her twitter feed via lists, and is also open-minded at joining groups when invited.
Getting the first requires both luck and effort. You have to be open to meeting others, and also need to build a name for yourself so that you’ll get asked.
2. On profiling
People are only relatable if you see them fail
In her profiles, Polina emphasizes faults:
The thing about a compelling profile is one where they succeeded, failed, got redemption, maybe another failure and then another success again. It’s like when you lose everything and how you rebuild. People are just looking for lessons on if everything’s taken away, how to move on with their lives.
If you slow somebody down and you can show all the details, your brain can properly process that
This ties in nicely with her preference of adding nuance as mentioned earlier
The types of people Polina features
For her profiles, Polina just looks for people that are interesting to her, and they might not see eye to eye
I don’t want to have criteria for who I feature, because I naturally gravitate towards really complicated characters who I’m fascinated by and I want to include them
I don’t have the same reaction a lot of reporters have, like I can’t stand this person and would never want to interview them. I’m like the crazier the better, bring them on.
As with all things, avoid boring people.
Getting people to open up
On this, Polina says:
I’ve never thought of myself as the most talented writer, I’ve never thought of myself as the smartest person, but I just know that I have basic social skills where I can make people feel comfortable. And if they feel comfortable they’ll tell you things that you want to know.
The way I get people to agree for a profile is to do research on them, find something similar, and show you’re a human too
Here’s a few other points that came up during the discussion:
- Polina keeps a list of ideas, which she adds to whenever she comes across something interesting . Sometimes she’ll grab a random book off her shelf to see if there’s anything that sparks her mind
- Polina’s always wanted to write a book, but that’s a daunting task. What she’s doing now is writing pieces of it with profiles on people, and building up to the book over time. The idea is to create a system where you break it down and it’s not so massive of a problem.
- Something that Polina’s wanted to write about but hasn’t yet: how labelling people when young affect them psychologically
- Polina’s grand vision for the Profile: Have an even more immersive experience for readers, to actually see a day in the life of someone. That could take the form of a “Profile School” where you go and learn directly from someone, but she doesn’t know what it’ll look like yet.
- What Polina wishes more people knew about her: What people think she’s best at are her biggest insecurities, because she had to get good at those skills while growing up
Thoughts from the RenCo community
“be precise in your thinking and in every word you use – ugh, holy grail.” - Kali Borkoski
“The idea of sending your writing to someone unfamiliar - not just friends and family - to get a sense of if your level of detail and precision is correctly calibrated made so much sense. I’m now trying this out and the fresh perspective on drafts is amazing.” - Nadia Eldeib
Polina’s question for readers
Here’s something Polina would like to know about you: Who is the person you’ve learnt the most from? Continue the conversation here on twitter!
- Pattie Sellers is an award-winning writer, producer, and multimedia journalist who wrote for Fortune for 32 years.
- As long as it’s constructive and not a trolling attempt
- Type House, which full disclosure I’m also a part of and is how I know Polina.
- I do the same, and have heard similar ideas from others e.g. a “swipe list” where you put down quotes or sentences you really like, to reference for the future.
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