Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Behind the Books: Looking at Nonfiction Types and Styles Together

If you’ve been following my Wednesday posts for the last few weeks, you know that I’ve been thinking about various ways of classifying nonfiction and how the categories are related to an author’s intention(s) as he/she is writing a book.

Just to recap . . . According to my current way of thinking, there are four nonfiction categories—survey, specialized, concept, and biography/autobiography. And there are three nonfiction writing styles—narrative, expository, persuasive.

So here’s a question: How are these nonfiction types and writing styles related to and/or influenced by one another?

Here are my thoughts, and I fully admit that they are still evolving.

When creating The Guinness Book of World’s Records or The Time for Kids Big Book of Why, the goal was to share snippets of information that kids would devour. These books cover a lot of ground and are meant to appeal to a wide swath of upper-elementary kids, including reluctant readers. So the publishers developed survey books with a fast-fact expository style.

I think it’s safe to say that all survey books have an expository style. At least I can’t think of any that don’t. Can you?

When I was writing Feathers: Not Just for Flying, my goal was to describe the surprising ways some birds use their feathers and to explain how their unusual feather-related behaviors help them survive in their habitats. My topic was focused, but I’d be sharing information about many different birds. The best choice was a specialized book with a facts-plus expository writing style.

Do specialized books always have an expository style? No way. My book A Place for Butterflies is a specialized book with a persuasive style, and Chasing Cheetahs by Sy Montgomery is a specialized book with a narrative style.

Remember the ten specialized books I shared back on October 15? Here they are sorted by writing style:

Specialized, Expository
My First Day by Steve Jenkins & Robin Page

Pure Grit by Mary Cronk Farrell

Zombie Makers: True Stories of Nature's Undead by Rebecca L. Johnson

Specialized, Narrative
Chasing Cheetahs: The Race to Save Africa's Fastest Cats by Sy Montgomery

Handle with Care: An Unusual Butterfly Journey by Loree Griffin Burns

Plastics Ahoy! by Patricia Newman

Witches! The Absolutely True Tale of Disaster in Salem by Rosalyn Schanzer

Wolfsnail: A Backyard Predator by Sarah Campbell

Specialized, Persuasive
Energy Island by Allan Drummond

Frog Song by Brenda G. Zuiberson

When I was writing the three companion books When Rain Falls, Under the Snow, and Beneath the Sun, I had a dual purpose in mind. (1) I wanted readers to understand an abstract concept—that an animal’s body features and behaviors help it survive in its environment. (2) I wanted the books to work as bedtime stories.

To achieve my first goal, a concept book was the obvious choice. Many (most?) concept books have an expository style, but for my books to work well at bedtime, a narrative style would work better. After much trial and error, I discovered that showing the passage of time and crafting an ending that linked strongly back to the beginning created a satisfying circle, making the books read like stories.

Remember the ten concept books I shared back on October 15? Here they are sorted by writing style. Interestingly, both of the Concept, Narrative books below feature circle stories, just like my three books. I think this is a reliable pattern.

Concept, Expository
An Egg is Quiet by Dianna Aston Hutts

Bone by Bone: Comparing Animal Skeletons by Sarah Levine

Just a Second by Steve Jenkins

Lifetime: The Amazing Numbers in Animals’ Lives by Lola Schaefer

Move by Steve Jenkins & Robin Page

Mysterious Patterns: Finding Fractals in Nature by Sarah C. Campbell

Seeing Symmetry by Loreen Leedy

Swirl by Swirl by Joyce Sidman

Concept, Narrative
Frog in a Bog by John Himmelman

Trout Are Made of Trees by April Pulley Sayre

Last but not least is the biography/autobiography category.

Because these books are the story of a person’s life, they are generally written with a narrative style. Creating scenes helps readers feel like they know the main character and understand his/her actions. But some biographies/autobiographies are also meant to persuade readers. These books have a combination narrative-persuasive style. Who Says Women Can’t Be Doctors? The Story of Elizabeth Blackwell by Tanya Lee Stone is a perfect example.


  1. Another interesting post, Melissa. I'm really enjoying this series. This morning, you've got me thinking ...

    In THE WRITER'S PORTABLE MENTOR, Priscilla Long introduces the idea of "writing into a structure." The idea is to read deeply to identify structures in books and essays, and then to try to write into the structure you've identified. (That is, take a topic you're writing about and fit it to that structure.) It's an exercise that would work perfectly for those of us following along with your blog series. Can a survey style book be written in a narrative style? What would that look like? If I were to try it, what topic would work best? Where would I start? It's a great challenge to undertake, and I'm glad you are sparking this sort of thinking in the NF community.

    Also, the survey style books that you've mentioned previously that are most narrative, to my mind, are Jason Chin's REDWOODS and Don Brown's THE GREAT AMERICAN DUST BOWL. (Would you agree?) Incidentally, they are the two on your survey list that surprised me the most when I first read it ... although they are very, very brief introductions to a very broad topic and, as such, fit the definition of a survey book. And then there is this can of worms: the "narrative" of REDWOODS is fictional; do we count it, then? So many interesting questions! Thank you for keeping this conversation going, and for getting my morning off to a thoughtful start.


  2. I think that's a great activity to try, though I'm not sure it will always work. I've never seen a pure-narrative writing style survey book. REDWOODS (and several of Chin's other titles) are special cases because the text is expository and the art brings in the story (by visually representing the character's imagination as he reads).

    I agree that a strong argument could be made for classifying REDWOODS and other Chin titles as fiction. The LOC must often find it tricky to assign books to one category or another. WEEDS FIND A WAY is another great example. The LOC says it's fiction, but many people think it should be considered nonfiction.

    Just last week, I had a discussion with a highly-respected librarian about whether my book FEATHERS is narrative or expository. I classify it as expository, but she made a good case for thinking of it as narrative.

    Fro me, the exciting thing is that we are having these conversations. Period. Styles, structures, and types give us vocabulary for describing and discussing the craft of nonfiction writing and can help us make more purposeful decisions as we write new manuscripts.

    Thanks for your input, Loree.