Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Behind the Books: “Building” a Book

It’s a great time for nonfiction. We can be wilder and more creative than ever before. Because the Internet makes straightforward facts so readily available, it pushes children’s nonfiction authors to go farther and deeper in our research and our writing.

Nonfiction writing has three key elements: structure, voice, and word choice. I’ll talk about voice and word choice at some point in the future, but today will be all about structure, which encompasses organization, format, and design.

Let’s start off by considering some traditional options for organizing text. I’ve relied on all of these in books I've written in the past, though I wasn’t necessarily aware of what I was doing at the time. For many years, I took an organic approach to organizing. I just did what felt right without thinking much about it.

1. Intro

This is a good approach when you are discussing a bunch of different things, and each is roughly equivalent in importance. I have used it in many books, including Seals, Sea Lions, and Walruses. This is also the approach used in all DK's Eyewitness Books and taught in most schools. Foor the most part, using this structure will get students top scores on NCLB-mandated state assessment tests.

2. First this happened
Then this happened
Finally, this happened

This scheme can work well for biographies and historical overviews as well as book es about an animal’s lifecycle. I used it in my book Classification of Life.

3. Hook
Introduce and define subject
Give examples
Compare to other things
Connect it to big picture

This is basically what I learned in journalism school—and used to write Life in a Lake. Of course, reporters have their own special lingo. Instead of “hook,” we used the term “lede”, and instead of the very clunky “introduce and define subject” we used the phrase “nut graph”. The nutgraph tells a reader what he/she is about to read. In the heyday of newspapers, it was important to put this information right up front because (a) people might not read much farther into the story and (b) reporters didn't know in advance how much space would be devoted to their story. They had to be prepared for the end to get lobbed off during layout.

Wow, this post is already getting pretty long, so I think I’ll make you wait until next week to find out how I think about structure now. For the last few years, I've been putting a lot of time and effort into turning these traditional structures on their heads. So have other authors. Stay tuned to find out more!

1 comment:

  1. Hi Melissa,
    Congrats on your new blog. I love it! I plan to have my kids check out your tree (and compare it to ours) on a regular basis. Your writing tips are wonderful too. Remember those days back in Science Journalism 101? Best of luck! Chana