Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Motivation, Storytelling and Mid-Career: A Q&A with Jacqui Banaszynski

Yesterday Jacqui Banaszynski shared how persistence landed her three big stories. Today, she talks about the persistence of storytelling, finding the right motivation to stay persistent and how persistence might look different in mid-career than when you're just starting out. Banaszynski is a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter who now holds the Knight Chair in Editing at the Missouri School of Journalism and an Editing Fellow at the Poynter Institute. She worked in newsrooms for more than 30 years, and now leads workshops for journalists around the world.

Tomorrow, one more post from Jacqui about persistence vs. politeness.

What role does persistence play in storytelling? Do the two go together at all?

I’m tempted to say there is no storytelling without persistence. Sure, there are the rare right-place, right-time cases of a great story landing in a writer’s notebook. But even then, the writer has to be alert to the value of the story and has to pursue it to the end.

Pursuit takes persistence. Lots of it. Persistence and follow-through often mark the difference between the successful, published writer and the frustrated wanna-be, perhaps even more than talent.

A writer has to be persistent in developing and pitching an idea; she has to be open to shaping and reshaping it to sell, while retaining her belief in it even when others don’t see the potential.

A writer has to be persistent in gaining access to the right subjects and sources, and in getting those people to grant both time and honesty.

A writer has to be persistent in staying focused on the point and purpose of a story, resisting the inevitable distractions and detours that come with reporting. At some level, that means even working to stay interested in the topic, or to get interested in the topic in the first place, or to work through enough interview questions to find the subject’s passion for the topic.

Most writers have to exercise discipline that goes beyond mere persistence when they finally sit down to write. And rewrite. And rewrite again. Too many great stories fail because writers lost patience or energy at the keyboard.

And finally, a writer has to be persistent in getting a story published. That means everything from (politely) hounding editors to working with photographers and designers to reading final proofs (if allowed) to make sure all the pieces of a story package are in place and accurate. Hitting the send button is not the end of journalistic writing.

You told a story at the conference of a student who wanted to do a story on a girl with an eating disorder. You set the bar high, assuming she'd give up. But she didn't and it sounds like she came up with a great story. How do high standards and persistence play off each other to create a better writer? Or do they?

Different people respond to different challenges. Some are “I’ll show you” types who thrive in the face of an impossible challenge. Others fold under pressure, so need constant validation and encouragement.

As an editor and teacher, part of my job is to figure out what best motivates a writer. But if you’re a freelancer working on your own or with multiple editors, you need to take control of your own motivation, and take responsibility for the quality of your work and for your own growth and development. If you can’t rely on someone else to push, prod or pull you, what can you do to push, prod and pull yourself? That takes both persistence and self-awareness. It means keeping yourself engaged, managing your time and refusing to get discouraged when you get little or negative feedback.

I believe in the theory that most people will rise (or fall) to the expectations set for them by people they value. So can you set expectations for yourself — tangible goals you want to reach or bars you want to clear — and then work day-by-day to get there?

Even if your work is “good enough” for publication or other editors, is it good enough for you?

Years ago, I made a sort of bet with myself to see if I could be directly involved with at least one award-winning piece of journalism a year. It wasn’t the awards themselves that mattered as much as using them as a benchmark. It reminds me to pay attention to the work I’m involved in, and make sure I’m giving extra effort to projects that have the most potential.

For mid-career journalists, is the issue of persistence in their craft different than those just out of college, in your experience?

See the answer just above. The key is to take responsibility for your own development, to know yourself and to find ways to motivate yourself.

Early in life, in school and at home, most institutions and relationships exist to help a young person grow and learn and achieve. It’s almost taken for granted that a young person will get constantly better, and that there will be people all around them to help them. That can be true very early in careers, too, when young hires have mentors or bosses invested in their success.

But after a few years on the job, that responsibility shifts and individuals have to take ownership of their own growth. One of the hard adjustments to adulthood is to realize that learning doesn’t come in a steady rise, but often in short steps up after frustrating long plateaus. And taking those short steps up sometimes doesn’t happen unless you make it happen yourself. So you have to start setting goals and routes to achieve them. You have to reach out and ask for help or for opportunities rather than have then given to you. You have to want to keep learning, and find ways to do so.

Are you constantly reading about the craft, or finding courses to take — perhaps joining a writer’s group or taking some online courses through NewsU or at a local community college? Are you inviting a publication's editor for coffee and asking her to evaluate your work? Are you finding writers who you admire, studying their work and perhaps interviewing them about their struggles and techniques?

And, most important, are you paying attention to how much your work grows and improves over time by reading past work?

Writing is a lot like running a marathon, or going on a long, arduous backpacking trip. You will cruise sometimes and stumble at others. You can’t get anywhere except one step at a time. So you need to set your sights on small markers along the way to the finish line, and celebrate when you cross one of those markers.

Then you need to start moving towards the next, one step at a time.

What do you tell mid-career journalists about their craft--improving it, etc?

Again, see the answer above. Improving the craft (and art) of reporting and writing and editing means constantly reporting and writing and editing — and reading. It means being in the world, talking to people, asking questions, paying attention, constantly keeping your curiosity on high and looking for stories.

It means reading with a writer’s mind, and at some level studying how good writers write. It also means getting back in touch with grade school grammar and gaining a better understanding of the habits you have in use of language, and of the effects specific language use (and grammar, punctuation, etc.) have on an overall piece.

It means writing, a lot, and then re-reading your work (out loud) with a reader’s mind:
  • What’s clear?
  • What’s fuzzy?
  • What images stand out?
  • What background can be condensed?
  • What words or passages are self-indulgent and decorative rather than telling and descriptive?
It means trying something new and taking a few risks, as a reporter, a writer and a reader.

Anything else I didn't ask that you want to add or think is important to say on persistence for journalists?

Journalism is work worth doing. No matter what is happening in the news industry economically, the work of storytellers is work essential to society. It feeds community in both knowledge and spirit.

My parents taught me than any work worth doing is worth doing as well as you can do it. That’s how I feel about journalism.

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