What Is a Pen Portrait?

A pen portrait is an informal description of a person or a group of people. A pen portrait may discuss “hard” variables, such as age or gender, but it should focus on “softer” dimensions, such as attitudes, lifestyle and appearance. Pen portraits can be used as part of the outcome of a qualitative research work or as a recruitment tool for participants for a project.

The expression “pen portrait” dates back to the 1800s and essentially means a character sketch in words. It originally meant a description of a person that was good enough to produce a picture of the person in one’s mind. People also used the term “pen picture” to mean the same thing. Pen portraits are now commonly used for various audience-targeting purposes, such as for marketing or recruitment. Information that may be included in a pen portrait include the person’s name, his age, his beliefs, his likes and dislikes. Pen portraits may compare who the subject thinks he is and who he actually is. They may include the subject’s home area, work area, ambitions, needs and desires. A pen portrait may also include what the person enjoys and doesn’t enjoy as well as his political ideas.