Friday, October 7, 2011

Writing tips from Jan Winburn

I recently watched a Poynter webinar on Writing Successful Profiles with Jan Winburn, senior editor for enterprise at I couldn't wait to watch this particular session because I knew Jan would have lots of great information to share. Turns out, she did.

Below is some of what she said. I'm sharing it here, with my writer friends, because while this webinar was directly toward journalists, I think that we can apply much of what she said to fiction writing as well. 

Some background on Jan. She joined CNN in 2009 after more than 30 years as an editor at newspapers and magazines. She edited Lisa Pollak’s 1997 Pulitzer Prize-winning feature story “The Umpire’s Sons” and was named a Times-Mirror Journalist of the Year in 1997 for improving writing at The Baltimore Sun.

Here's some of what Jan said.

A. What reveals character? Jan says appearance, speech, action and thought. 

Appearance This includes features, shape, style, environment, "sense impressions." Also, watch for external things that reveal something internal.

Speech Jan says not to use dialogue to merely convey information. Some information is better left paraphrased.

Action Jan says that actions speak louder than what a person says or think. She suggests looking at past actions and events for clues about the person.

Thought Thought informs motive. It's most interesting when it's in conflict with a person's speech, appearance or action.

B. What is the quest?

What makes a person (or character) who they are? What motivates them? What moments or life events shaped them? Everyone has a quest (get the girl, win the game) and it's up to the reporter/writer to discover that quest. What conflict do they have that they want to resolve? A person's quest is often life-changing for him or her. If you're a reporter, you might have an hypothesis about a person's quest. It's up to you to test it.

Once you know what the quest is, then you know which pearls to include on the story strand.

A work needs focus, a place where all of the rays meet.

C. Getting the details

Ask open-ended questions, such as What's missing from your life? What has made you the most afraid? What do you worry about? A person's answers to these questions can tell a lot about a him or her.

What were the points of time that were critical and defining to them? Don't forget about visuals aids, like scrapbooks and video.

Search for tension. Tension lives inside the quest, lives inside those defining moments.

D. Avoiding the cliche

Let the cliche be a target. Go into a story with an open mind. Be well-informed but wary of biases. Everyone has a dark side. Let it inform, not overwhelm.

E. Greatest virtues

Jan talked about having patience and thoughtfulness. She feels these virtues will help us be successful.

F. Promise of a piece. She also talked about the promise of a piece, that little something that makes you want to keep reading.We need to offer readers this promise.

Every story needs an engine that drives the reader through the story. Do you have that engine in your piece?

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1 comment:

  1. Brilliant post!
    Very interesting- especially the part about how thoughts can be in conflict with the character's speech or action.
    Love it! :)