John Vaillant on high-impact non-fiction writing

JohnVaillantby Rachel Sanders

Master storyteller John Vaillant delivered a highly concentrated dose of non-fiction writing advice last weekend at a day-long workshop in Vancouver that was part of The Tyee’s fall Master Class series.

The author of the award-winning and bestselling books The Golden Spruce and The Tiger took an intense dive into the processes and narrative techniques necessary to create stories that grab and hold readers’ attention in a world filled with distraction. How do you know you’ve got a good story? And where do you go from there? These are questions you need to ask about every story you pitch — from magazine features to radio documentaries to non-fiction books. Here are some of Vaillant’s suggestions.

• So you’ve got an idea… but how do you know whether it’s worth pursuing? Vaillant suggests you use your own barometer of interest. If you’re fascinated by the idea yourself, it’s a good hint that the idea is compelling.

How much research do you need to do before you’re ready to pitch a story? As much as possible. Vaillant estimates that he spent a year researching before he went to the New Yorker with the story that eventually became The Golden Spruce. When you’re trying to sell a story, you’re basically trying to get a investor, he says. Having solid research material can help with that.

• Part of what gives prose strength is a voice that speaks from a place of authority, so you need to do enough research that you feel you can speak with authority. In addition to researching written materials about your subject, look at scientific research, historical background, art, myths, and folklore. If you’re writing about a place, visit it. Then augment your own experience with the more thorough and detailed experiences of others.

Researching a big story is a process of relationship building. Treat every source as an expert. Do your research ahead of time and come in with intelligent questions — this will help you build trust with your sources. At the beginning of your research, keep an open mind to all possibilities. Vaillant always approaches subjects with as much humility as he can. When he’s setting out to research a story idea, he thinks of himself a student.

When it’s time to start writing, begin with individual scenes. Start with the scene that excites you the most and discover, in trying to write it, what you don’t yet know. Then go back and do more research to fill in the gaps.

Rather than starting with facts and background and letting the story slowly build, grab your readers’ attention immediately with mood, atmosphere and poetry the way Vaillant did at the beginning of The Tiger. Poetry is about keen observation so there’s definitely a place for it in nonfiction. The perfect combination, says Vaillant, is a melding of rich sensory description and context. Find a rhythm between the two styles.

• And take the time to consider: why do you write? Vaillant’s motivation for writing is to convey his own sense of wonder about the world. What’s yours?


There are five more Master Classes coming up in The Tyee’s fall series, including one this Saturday with media lawyer Leo McGrady. If you’re in the Vancouver area, check out The Tyee’s Master Class information page for details.

Posted on October 7, 2015 at 9:00 am by editor · · Tagged with: , , , , ,

2 Responses

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  1. Written by Rebecca Hass
    on October 8, 2015 at 2:35 pm
    Reply · Permalink

    Thanks so much for sharing this. I had wanted to attend this workshop but had a prior commitment. I’ve printed off these tips to help me out when I wonder if it is a good story or not. Thanks Rachel!

    • Written by editor
      on October 8, 2015 at 6:37 pm
      Reply · Permalink

      So glad you enjoyed the post!

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