Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Behind the Books: Choosing a Nonfiction Category

One of the most challenging parts of crafting nonfiction is finding the most interesting and effective way to present the idea, information, and/or true story you want to share. This process can be easier if you think carefully about nonfiction category as early as possible by asking and answering the following series of questions:

      1.    Is my goal to write about a person’s life and his/her specific accomplishments? If yes, then a life story is the best choice. If no, go to 2.
     2.    Is my goal to provide a broad overview of a topic? If yes, then a survey text is the best choice. If no, go to 3.

      3.    Is my goal to delve deeply into a highly-focused topic? If yes, then I should write a specialized text. If no, go to 4.

      4.    Is my goal to help my readers understand an abstract idea or process? If yes, then I should write a concept text. If no, reconsider 1-3.

When a nonfiction writer settles on a category early on, it can guide his/her research and help him/her choose the most effective text structure, writing style, voice, and point of view for a particular manuscript. 


  1. Would you consider a "moment in time" nonfiction text a subcategory of category 1 or 3? Or do you think it depends on if you're focusing more on a specific person's actions or on the event itself?

  2. That's a great question, Jilanne. Without knowing more about your "moment in time" text, I'd guess that it's an episodic narrative, which I consider one kind of sequence structure. (See past posts about structure for more info about this.) Examples include Ballet for Martha by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan, Brave Girl by Michelle Markel,
    and When Marian Sang by Pam Munoz Ryan. Perhaps you can use these as mentor texts.

    As you say, it could be either specialized nonfiction or a life story depending on whether the focus is more on a person or an historical event. But (again, without more info) my guess is that it is (or should be) a life story because editors seem to like manuscripts in which a person is a window into past events. It's hard to sell a book just about the events, as evidenced by the lack of such books on the market.

    What I'm eventually going to get to through in this series of posts is the idea of a nonfiction triumvirate. It's helpful to consider category, writing style, and structure simultaneously. Certain combinations are more common than others. For example, nearly all life stories are narratives, whereas nearly all concept books are expository. Hope that helps.