Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Behind the Books: Focusing a Manuscript

As nonfiction becomes more creative and more visually dynamic, authors are realizing that structuring the ideas they want to share in a unique, engaging way is at the heart of crafting a nonfiction manuscript. Before we write a single word, we think long and hard about structure (focus and organization) and design (format, layout, and art). These elements must work together to delight as well as inform young readers—not to mention the people who buy books for them.

At the beginning of a project, a topic has limitless possibilities. So authors need to decide what to shine a spotlight on and what to leave backstage. For example, while creating Team Moon: How 400,000 People Landed Apollo 11 on the Moon, Catherine Thimmesh didn’t focus on the three astronauts aboard the spaceship. Instead she wrote about the many unsung heroes behind the scenes. And that’s what makes the book special.

Authors Susan E. Goodman and Sarah Albee started out with the same topic—poop. But because each of them has different personal interests, the authors ended up writing very different books.

In The Truth About Poop, Goodman chose to include lots of fascinating information about animal poop and the mechanics of plumbing, giving the book a science-y feel.

Albee’s book, Poop Happened: A History of the World from the Bottom Up, includes information about public-health challenges related to waste disposal in the ancient and modern worlds as well as the ability of societies to deal with the problem. As a result, this self-proclaimed “number one book on number two” provides readers with an excellent introduction to social history. In the end, both books are wonderful, but they are far from identical.

So much has been written about Charles Darwin that it’s hard to imagine creating a ground-breaking book about the famous scientist. But by focusing on Darwin’s relationship with his beloved wife, Emma, and her religious beliefs, Deborah Heiligman produced a masterful ''nonficiton novel" that shows us Darwin in a whole new light.

As Heiligman wrote Charles and Emma: The Darwin’s Leap of Faith, she told herself over and over that every detail she included had to be “in service to the love story,” and by staying true to her vision, she created a book became a National Book Award finalist, a L.A. Times Book Prize finalist, a Michael L. Printz Honor book, and the winner of the first-ever YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Award.

For these authors, focusing their topic—choosing the specific nugget that meant the most to them—made their books unique and memorable.


  1. Thanks for this excellent post, Melissa.

  2. Great examples, Melissa, and a good reminder for all of us. Thanks!