Friday, February 3, 2012

Feature Writing with Dan Rubinstein of Canadian Geographic (Part 1 of 2)

It was nice to see Canadian Geographic editor Dan Rubinstein back in his old stomping grounds this week. Dan hasn’t been back to Alberta since he moved to Ottawa for the CG gig so it was perfect for AMPA to bring him out to host a few webinars and seminars in Calgary and Edmonton. The room was full of eager writers and editors ready to hear Dan’s pearls of wisdom. And this 2009 Alberta Editor of the Year Award winner definitely delivered. 

 Dan accepting a National Magazine Award on behalf of Kris Demeanor, 
whose winning feature he edited for Unlimited magazine.

If you missed the feature writing sessions with Dan, not to worry. Here’s a recap (just Part One for now).

Dan began by discussing what magazine articles do—the main goal being to take readers on a journey. Common ingredients he cited in a good magazine feature include:
  • engaging opening scene
  • nut paragraph (hints at central theme, lays down map for readers as to the path you’re going to lead them down)
  • history of evolution (important background info to understand the topic)
  • roster of characters
  • vivid details
  • sense of closure
He then made a critical point: “If you want to be a great magazine writer, you should read great magazines. You should have favourite magazine stories. Deconstruct them. Why do you like them?”

Dan speaking to a riveted group at the Feature Writing seminar in Calgary.
Photo credit: Sandra Markieta, SAIT student and AMPA volunteer
Strong Openers
Dan references an Esquire article by Mike Sager as an example of a great feature with a strong opener full of vivid detail. (Love the man-purse reference as a revealing detail to show how out of place he is.) “A strong opener is critical; you need to hook the reader.”

He uses a cinematic analogy to illustrate a good lead. “Think of openings as James Bond movies. They really pull you into the narrative with details, action, excitement, then fade to black and the real story begins."

“Conceive of your story as a series of scenes,” Dan advises. Before you even write a story, you should be able to block out scenes or create an outline. You can also take an essay approach (opening, three points, conclusion) or use dramatic juxtaposition to jump between two ideas.

Stay tuned for Part Two where I’ll go over Dan’s advice on styles, tone/voice and other helpful writing tips!

--- Colleen Seto
AMPA Blogger-in-Residence