Mark L. Winston is the recipient of the 2015 Governor General’s Literary Award for Nonfiction for his best-selling book Bee Time: Lessons From the Hive, and an Independent Publishers 2019 Gold Medal IPPY Award for his book Listening to the Bees, co-authored with poet Renee Saklikar. His work has appeared in seven books, commentary columns for the Vancouver Sun, The New York Times, The Sciences, Orion magazine, and many other outlets.
As an award-winning writer and editor, Mark works with students as well as scientists, other professionals and community writers to develop proposals and edit manuscripts for non-fiction writing, from newspaper opinion pieces to books. He was a founding faculty member in the Banff Centre Science Communication Program, and has taught in SFU’s Nonfiction for the Weekend Student course for the past five years. He currently is the SFU Library’s inaugural Writer in Residence for Nonfiction 2020-2021.
In addition to his writing experience, Mark has had an illustrious career researching, teaching and writing on bees and agriculture, environmental issues and science policy. He directed Simon Fraser University’s Centre for Dialogue for 12 years, where he achieved international recognition as a distinguished Canadian educator concentrating on creating leadership development opportunities for students that contribute to social change in communities. As a consultant and thought leader, he partners with universities, corporations, non-profits, governments and communities to advance communication skills, engage public audiences with controversial issues through dialogue, and implement experiential learning and community engagement in educational institutions.
What is the most valuable insight or skill that your VMI writers have learned from you?
So many skills go into good writing, it’s difficult to pick just one! But perhaps it’s this: good writing begins with clear thinking, understanding your point in each sentence and paragraph, up to the full article or book you’re writing. Clarity is a prerequisite for eloquence.
What do you gain from the mentoring process?
My own sense of satisfaction is driven not so much by what I have accomplished as it is by the achievements of those I’ve taught and mentored. There’s something uniquely gratifying about being a small part of someone else’s success. And, my own writing has improved immeasurably through thinking about and editing the writing of others.
What will VMI participants gain from the program?
Feedback is a key ingredient in successful writing. VMI provides the opportunity to try out your ideas on other writers and the mentors, and to experiment until finding that distinctive literary voice that reflects the unique perspective each writer brings to the page.
What is the most valuable piece of writing advice you have received?
Helen Gregutt, my 11th grade high school teacher, had a pet writing peeve: she believed there was never any excuse to use the word “very.” I generally don’t use that word, although, like most writing rules, it’s made to be broken, and I have used the forbidden word occasionally. The reason that advice has been so valuable is not my reticence to use “very,” but rather that Mrs. Gregutt’s precision trained me to think carefully about every word. Is the word necessary, is it the best option, have I over-used it, will the meaning be clear to the reader?
Mrs. Gregutt also made us read, a lot. I have met many readers who don’t write, but I’ve never met a writer who didn’t read, voluminously and widely.
What book, poem or other written work has been most inspirational to you?
Although I only write nonfiction, I’m going to pick a work of fiction, Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto. It’s such exquisite storytelling. The best writing, fiction or nonfiction, speaks to us through story.
What books do you recommend VMI participants read for additional advice?
Margaret Atwood: Negotiating with the Dead
Stephen King: On Writing: a Memoir of the Craft
Anne Lamott: Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
For everything else:
David Bayles and Ted Orland: Art and Fear
What are you currently working on?
I’ve largely put aside my own writing for a bit, to concentrate on mentoring other writers. I’m still doing some writing about bees and pollinators, usually published in a beautiful new magazine 2 Million Blossoms.
What do you enjoy most about being a VMI mentor?
The opportunity to participate in the growth of writing projects from ideas to storylines through to words on the page and hopefully eventual publication.
What do you wish you knew when writing your first manuscript that you know now?
Editors are the writer’s best friend. Sorry, Mrs. Gregutt, but editors are your very best friends. Drop the ego, it’s not about you, it’s about producing the best writing you’re capable of. It takes a village . . . whether it’s a professional editor, friends and family, or your VMI peers and mentors, feedback is essential to achieve writing with impact, that flows and sings.