I’m really excited to be working with faculty, staff, postdoctoral fellows and students on enhancing their ability to communicate with public audiences. We’re going to be doing day-long workshops where participants will work on their own writing, get feedback, revise and then present it in a bit of a showcase. They’ll have hands-on experience with what it feels like to take what they know and learn how to translate it more effectively for a public audience.
I’ll also be doing more focused consultations, editing and manuscript development with individuals who have particular promise or projects that I can help them work on– an intensive opportunity to work on ideas and be mentored through the process of getting it out to a public audience.
What attracted you to the SFU Library Non-Fiction Writer in Residence Program?
First, I am, and always have been, a huge fan of libraries, because of the incredible connections they make with community. Twinning that has been my own commitment in academia to reach out and connect with the public. Writing has always been at the core of how I communicate both inside and outside the university. So, putting those together, it seemed like a natural fit, and yet another way we could encourage knowledge mobilization at the university.
This writer in residence program is focused on non-fiction writing, and has a strong focus on writing for public audiences. Can you talk about your experience writing for the public?
My academic career and my personal gratification in what I do have both been deeply enhanced by writing for the public. I don’t feel like I am writing just for myself—I’m writing for an audience. When I’m writing, I’m thinking about my neighbours, reminding me of how important it is for academia to be of service and relevant to off-campus communities.
I’ve written op ed pieces for newspapers. I’ve written books. I’ve done a fair amount of creative non-fiction writing. Each of those experiences has enhanced my ability to communicate, and enriched my own sense of satisfaction with what I do. A well-turned phrase, that moment when you just nail what it is you want to say—it’s enormously satisfying. I’m quite excited by helping others in the SFU community to find those moments for themselves.
How will your past experience, including as a professor in biological sciences and as a senior fellow in the Centre for Dialogue, help inform your time as the writer in residence?
When I started working at Simon Fraser University I was, and still am, a bee biologist. One of the things I did right from day one was ask my students to go out and talk to beekeepers and farmers about their research. Through that process the students learned how to communicate, and they came to love it. Partly because it helped them to understand how you can forge an effective message but also, they were interacting with the people who benefited from the work they were doing.
So right from the start of my academic career, I’ve been deeply committed to that kind of public communication. When I started at the Centre for Dialogue, I was working with not just beekeepers and the farming community, but now every issue you can imagine across the public sector. The idea of writing as a form of dialogue embedded itself in my mind, having a conversation with readers. Not as a way of proselytizing, or of propagandizing, but rather being thoughtful and reflective in ways that in turn help your readers to become thoughtful and more reflective.
How did you learn to write effectively for public audiences?
Helen Gregutt. Eleventh grade high school teacher. I grew up in South Euclid, Ohio, and Helen came from New York. She smoked cigarettes and she read The New Yorker, and she seemed very sophisticated. And she just pounded into us the idea that writing should strive for clarity. You need to be clear, you need to be brief, and you need to get right to the point.
Why do you think writing for the public is an important part of research and academia?
I’ve always had this fundamental commitment to communicate with the widest possible audience, feeling that it’s a great joy but also an obligation that we have as academics. We have to be deeply committed to convincing the public that what we do has value.
The flip side of that is that my own work and my own research have enormously benefited from the interaction and feedback I’ve had from the public. When I was doing bee research, the ideas of beekeepers, and their experiences, were absolutely critical, and broadened and enriched my own understanding of bees. And now that I’m in the dialogue sphere, hearing from community about dialogue has really expanded my own conceptions of what it is we could do, what it is we should do, and how we go about it.
It’s certainly not a one-way street. What I’ve gotten back from community has probably been greater than anything I might have given.
If you could share a piece of advice with researchers who are new to communicating with public audiences, what would it be?
One semester my students gave me a plaque with a word on it that they’d invented: “To Winston-ize.” The definition was: “Cut out half the words and get to the point.” So that’s one piece of advice I would give: we academics are way too wordy. Keep it simple.
Simplifying is not dumbing down. Simplifying is really deeply understanding the key thing that you have found out in your research, and being able to express that. We marvel when we see someone get up and just clearly explain in simple language this phenomenal thing that they’ve discovered. That’s what we’ll strive for in our non-fiction writing workshops: to take all of that complexity, and simplify it, clarify it, give it some impact, and communicate the meaning more effectively.
Can you talk about some non-fiction writing that you admire, or talk about a book or writer that has inspired you?
There’s a great book about evolutionary biology by Jonathan Weiner called The Beak of the Finch. It really honed for me the importance of storytelling and bringing in people as exemplars. We all relate to people, to stories. When you’re telling a science story, if you can bring in something personal about the scientist, with the tension of the process and the excitement of finding something out … I learned a lot from those kinds of storytellers.
You mentioned that you’re a big reader. How does reading impact your writing?
Reading provides templates for how we might write, ideas for what might be worth writing about, a sense of language and of words, of rhythm and of pace and of story. Without doing a lot of reading over a wide set of genres, I don’t think anyone can ever become a decent writer.
A number of your projects, including writing projects, have been collaborations. Can you talk about your experiences with collaboration?
I am by nature a collaborator. I can’t tell if I was drawn to honeybees because they’re such a collaborative society, or if by starting out working with bees, I absorbed some of their collaborative ethos. We are so much more effective when we take advantage of the great diversity of knowledge, perspectives, opinions and history that others can bring to a project. On my own, I can only do so much. But collaborating with others, it’s highly multiplied the effectiveness of anything that I’ve been able to do.
What are you most looking forward to over this course of this residency?
I am thrilled by the idea of being the inaugural non-fiction writer in residence. Writing residencies don’t tend towards non-fiction – they’re usually poetry or fiction-focused. I think SFU is a real trendsetter in having a specifically non-fiction residency. It means a lot to me to be part of that.
I’m looking forward to the workshops and to meeting the array of faculty, staff, students and postdoctoral fellows who we hope will participate. They’re going to come in terrified, and they’re going to come out at the end of the day having written something beautiful. I do workshops often, and I’ve seen this over and over again. It never fails that by the end of the day they’re released from whatever boundaries and strictures and boxes that are keeping them from expressing themselves clearly, effectively and with impact.
They all write something that knocks your socks off by the end of the day. It’s an emotional experience for me to see people move from fear to come up with something that they can look at and say “wow!” That’s what I’m looking forward to.
As the SFU Library Non-Fiction Writer in Residence, Mark Winston will be facilitating workshops on writing for public audiences and offering manuscript consultations for SFU faculty, staff, postdoctoral fellows, and graduate students.