Friday, March 5, 2021

Nonfiction Writing Tips: Starting with a Question

As you read the mentor essays in Nonfiction Writers Dig Deep: 50 Award-winning Authors Share the Secret of Engaging Writing, you’ll notice that, in some cases, professional writers start with a specific focus in mind. But for others, finding a focus is part of their creative process. In most cases, student writers will probably be in this second group.

Do how can writers find a focus? One way is by asking questions.

As you'll Questions discover in Nonfiction Writers Dig Deep, when I saw a Pinterest board with an incredible variety of seeds, I asked myself: “How does a seed’s external features contribute to its ability to survive and germinate?” That question focused my thinking and helped me target my research for the book that eventually became A Seed Is the Start.


Questions also help guide Laura Purdie Salas and Jen Swanson in early stages of the writing process. Laura’s favorite question is “What else?” She asks it over and over as she shapes the ideas and information her manuscript will explore.

Jen is a curious person who is always asking questions. Her books often begin with a BIG question, but she also asks herself dozens of smaller questions as she organizes information and searches for the best way to present her topic to her young audience.

If your class has adopted the Idea Incubator or One Amazing Thing strategies I’ve discussed in previous posts, students may already have questions that they can use as a starting point. If not, invite them to seek out questions that interest them in their Idea Incubator list or brainstorm questions about some of the amazing things they’ve been noticing around them. Students can use these questions to guide their research.

Not only does this approach guarantee that students will have some skin in the game, a specific query will lead to more targeted note taking. It will also give students authentic opportunities to make connections between information they find in a variety of sources.

1 comment:

  1. Yes! Questions guide us at every step of the process, from idea (like your seed idea) to research (what else? what am I missing?) to drafting (what does the reader need to know to understand this?) to theme (why? and what else in the world does this connect to?). What else helps me dig deeper, past the first ideas and most obvious examples...Thanks for this, Melissa!

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