Friday, March 12, 2021

Nonfiction Writing Tips: Look for the “Oh, wow!”

Wouldn't it be wonderful if nonfiction writers could always identify their focus at the beginning of the prewriting process? Unfortunately, that often isn’t the case. Sometimes writers really have to be in the thick of things before their focus becomes clear. 

What should writers do when they begin researching with nothing more than a general topic in mind? Nonfiction Writers Dig Deep: 50 Award-winning Authors Share the Secret of Engaging Writing includes some helpful suggestions.


For example, author Deborah Heiligman recommends a targeted note-taking strategy in which students read broadly about their topic and only jot down information that makes them say, “Oh, wow!” This approach helps writers view the topic through their own lens and pinpoint the ideas and information that interest them most.

As you'll discover in Nonfiction Writers Dig Deep, this is literally what Jason Chin did as he was creating Grand Canyon. After reading widely about his topic without a specific approach in mind, Jason decided to visit the canyon. And the first time he walked up to the edge, he had an “Oh, wow!” experience that inspired him and guided his creative process as he wrote and illustrated the book.

When Deborah employs her “Oh, wow!” technique, she uses the notes she’s taken to develop a “mantra”—a statement that helps her determine what information to highlight and what to leave out. She writes the statement on a piece of paper and tapes it to the wall above her computer.

Barbara Kerley describes a similar process in her essay. Whether she’s writing a picture book biography with a narrative writing style or a concept book with an expository writing style, she creates a sentence that focuses her thinking and her writing.

Chris Barton may not have written down the “mantra” that guided him as he wrote What Do You Do with a Voice Like That? The Story of Extraordinary Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, but his essay clearly explains how a core idea that emerged during his research process helped him focus his manuscript and fueled his passion for the project.

Next week I’ll share another idea that can help nonfiction writers focus a topic. Stay tuned.

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