Nonfiction writing is all about disseminating information. The WAY we do this can be difficult to decide. Topics are easy. Those are the ideas that intrigue us and send us gleefully tracking down all the information we can find on said topic. But how we choose to organize that information can sometimes bring the writing process to a screeching halt. One solution is to tackle the subject with a layered text.
Layered text allows nonfiction writers to present information in more than one way—within the same publication. Each layer adds to the overall concept. And like the bricks in a wall, each bit widens the scope of the topic and supports the main idea. The great thing about that is a nonfiction book with multiple text layers can reach a wider audience. And that can mean more sales and larger print runs.
Here are a few ways to add layers to your nonfiction projects:
Illustrations – In a way, a picture book is the simplest form of layered text. Whether the book is a “read-to-me” or a “read-alone” book, the illustrations add another layer of information for the reader. Sometimes the illustrations just enhance the written information. And sometimes they actually add information that is not in the text. But regardless of the grade level, pictures are a great way to add information to a nonfiction topic.
Font size and reading level – In some nonfiction books there are two reading levels. Short simple text is often in a larger font. More challenging text is a bit longer and usually in a smaller font. In a 2013 guest blog post on Cynthia Leitich Smith’s webpage, Melissa Stewart points out that these kinds of books are wonderful for Reading Buddy programs. Teachers love them because younger students can read the simple text, and their older Reading Buddy can read the more complex text. In this way both students practice reading, and they both learn new information about a given topic.
Sometimes the change in font is just for effect. In a fiction example, Battle Bunny by Jon Scieszka and Mac Barnett, the second font has the appearance of penciled in “improvements” by a boy named Alex. The second layer of text completely changes the original plot of the story.
Photos – Some nonfiction books are illustrated with photos. Others have both illustrations and photos. The photos show details often not discussed in the text. When used in combination with illustrations, they add yet another layer of information to the text.
Captions – Photos in nonfiction texts often include captions that explain what the reader sees in the photo. The caption can be as simple as an identifying phrase or as complex as a short paragraph.
Speech bubbles – Occasionally the illustrations in a nonfiction book have characters that talk. Their comments are added as speech bubbles. Usually, at least in nonfiction, the characters are making an observation about the concept being discussed in the main text.
One series that uses just about every type of layering mentioned in this post, including speech bubbles, is the Magic School Bus books. Although they should probably be considered “informational fiction” since the characters and events of the books are fiction, the concept of each book is pure science. To get the information across the author (Joanna Cole) and illustrator (Bruce Degen) use every tool at their disposal. The Magic School Bus books are chock full of text, sidebars, diagrams, labels, and more. It’s possible to explore the pages of a Magic School Bus book for hours even though it is technically considered a picture book. It’s all about the layers of text. Although they’ve been around for a while now, they’re still some of my favorites.
Diagrams – A diagram is a great way to explain things to a visual learner. Sometimes it’s the best way to explain something that would otherwise take a whole page of text. These days they are most often referred to as infographics.
Labels – Diagrams are usually labeled. The labels are another layer of meaningful text. However, photos and illustrations can also be labeled.
Factoids - Whether you call them Fun Facts, Factoids, or “Insert Topic Here” Facts, those little tidbits of information are another layer. Factoids are usually related to the overall topic and add something noteworthy not mentioned in the main text.
Sidebars – Sidebars are common in magazine articles and educational publications. They add additional information to something mentioned (without any elaboration) in the main text. Often sidebars offer an explanation of a concept with a bit more detail than just a definition.
Glossary – Sometimes all that is needed for some of the words in a text is a simple definition. A glossary is a mini-dictionary that defines words from the text that the author or publisher feels the reader may not know. In my experience, the definitions are generated by the author rather than copied from a dictionary.
Back matter – Most nonfiction writers enjoy the research process. They usually find way more information than they could ever hope to include in their main text. The back matter is a place to put the stuff that you find really interesting but just doesn’t go with the main text. The cool thing is, back matter can take many forms. (But maybe that’s another post.) Suffice it to say, the back matter can add another layer of information related to the topic of your book.
Author’s note - An author’s note usually offers some sort of explanation. It might be about what inspired the book, where the information for it was found, or a personal story of why that particular topic was of interest to the author. In any case, an author’s note can tie up loose ends and offer answers to those lingering questions the reader might have.
While the list above is fairly lengthy, it isn’t necessarily exhaustive. There may be others I’ve neglected to mention. As the author of over 40 nonfiction educational books for kids, I’ve used almost all of these. Often they’re all in the same book. And now my latest book has introduced me to a new one. I’m currently working on a project that will include several types of web content. There will be an online photo, an online video, and several online activities all associated with the book’s topic. And as other types of interactive texts are introduced, I suspect there will be additional ways to layer our nonfiction writing in the future.
For more examples of layered text nonfiction books see Melissa Stewart’s 2013 guest post on Cynthia Leitich Smith’s blog here: https://cynthialeitichsmith.com/2013/09/guest-post-melissa-stewart-on-layer/
You’ve gathered your information. Checked your facts. You’re ready to start writing but stop and wonder, WHO is telling this story? WHO is presenting the information? WHO is my narrator?
Maybe it’s not a WHO, but a WHAT.
An inanimate object. A thing.
Let me explain.
Many wonderful books have been written about Martin Luther King, Jr. How do you introduce him to children in a fresh and unique way? That was the task Eve Bunting gave herself -- and she succeeded with THE CART THAT CARRIED MARTIN.
The focus is on the simple, worn down cart that carried his coffin. Bunting was able to show MLK Jr.’s character by comparing his work ethic and struggles with that of the hard-working cart. By stepping back and creating a bit of distance, the story is still emotional – but not sorrowful.
This was just an ordinary cart – that eventually found a home in the MLK Jr. National Historic Site. “This is the humble cart that, not so long ago, carried greatness.”
Sometimes the perfect object can speak volumes.
That’s exactly what happens in Janet Nolan’s THE FIREHOUSE LIGHT.
Nolan had stumbled upon a fascinating little tidbit – a light bulb in the Livermore-Pleasanton Fire Department has been burning for over 100 years!
And nobody knows how.
Great fact. But is that a STORY?
It became one when she took a giant step back, looked at the bigger picture and wondered about all the events the light bulb would have witnessed through the years.
And THAT became the story!
The book follows the evolution of firefighting from volunteer bucket brigades to sophisticated equipment and new and improved techniques – always being illuminated by that single, amazing light bulb.
How do you handle an intense historical event filled with violence, hatred and prejudice in a picture book?
When Rob Sanders first entertained the idea of writing about the Stonewall riots, he thought so too.
Until he stepped back and focused on the two buildings that joined together to become Bonnie’s Stone Wall restaurant – the centerpiece of the event.
You’ve all heard the saying, “If these walls could talk”? Sanders gave them a voice. And they had a lot to say in STONE WALL – A Building, An Uprising, A Revolution.
By allowing the building to describe the events as they unfolded, it gives the reader an extra bit of space – space to take it in, understand it, but not be completely overwhelmed by it. It’s a safe space to view something so intense and powerful.
Looking for a fresh angle on your subject? Don’t stare at it too closely or you could miss an important element. Step back and look again – what else do you see? Specific objects? A place? What’s lurking in the corners?
By exploring your subject AND everything surrounding it, you might discover a unique and unusual way into your story – one that makes it stand out AND pull readers in.
Writing great nonfiction requires hard work and persistence. It may seem that luminaries in the field find the process easy, but let's take a look at what some of them have said about creating their books:
Steve Sheinkin was tempted to give up when it took nearly ten years and hundreds of rejections to get his first trade book published. Since then, his books have won multiple top awards.
In the process of developing Dangerous Jane, Suzanne Slade first wrote 82 versions in prose, 18 versions with a different theme, and then 26 versions in free verse.
Candace Fleming's first version of The Family Romanov was deemed "boring" by her editor. She then searched for a truth beyond facts and dug deep into Russian history to develop her riveting final story.
Laurie Halse Anderson hated her first few drafts of Thank You, Sarah, a picture book biography. Luckily, she drew a doodle that led to the breakthrough she needed.
Pamela S. Turner's proposal for Samurai Rising didn't sell. But after she wrote the full manuscript, she sold it to an editor who had earlier rejected the proposal.
Deborah Heiligman suffered the pain of giving up on a project after two years of research and promising leads. Fortunately, her next project became Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers.
April Pulley Sayre's picture book Stars Beneath Your Bed was rejected 52 times over eight years before it was published.
Jim Murphy submitted seven ideas to his editor that she rejected before he finally came up with The Great Fire. He sometimes spends a day writing a single sentence that he later deletes and might rewrite a manuscript as many as 50 times.
Before Phillip Hoose wrote Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice, he waited nearly four years before Ms. Colvin agreed to talk with him.
Melissa Stewart struggled with the structure for No Monkeys, No Chocolate, a writing journey that took "10 years, 56 revisions, and 3 fresh starts." Take a look at her Revision Timeline for a chronicle of her process.
I hope these tales of perseverance encourage you in writing your nonfiction works!
Lately the Ninjas have been discussing middle grade nonfiction, specifically word count. How long is the typical book? It depends on what you call typical. Is it trade nonfiction, or a title in an educational series? To start with, the middle grade reader is considered 8 – 12 years old, or in 3-6 grade.
To blog or not to blog, that is the question.
For many of us, our time to write is so limited or constricted, it seems crazy to take on one more writing obligation. And yet, in addition to the Nonfiction Ninjas blog, where I share a nugget of hard-earned writerly wisdom once every three months, I started a blog, THE KIDS ARE ALL WRITE, on my website nancychurnin.com.
And I made it weekly.
My motivation at the start was to give back to the writing community. When my books came out, writers, educators, book-loving folks with blogs hosted me – reviewing my books or doing interviews that gave me an opportunity to talk about my writing journey – what inspires me, what challenges me, what my hopes for my books are.
This would be my chance to do the same for other writers.
That’s a good enough reason to host a blog. But in doing it, I found an unexpected reward. I got to ask other writers all the things I wanted to know about what inspired them, what challenged them, what their hopes for their books are.
We talk about craft, about what we include and leave out of the narrative, about the surprises and the discoveries. In short, not only have I made marvelous friends through these interviews, they’ve become weekly dives into craft and motivation sessions that remind me why I love living in a world of words.
So yes, since time is finite, the hours I spend on the blog take away the time I have to write and promote my books. But there are wrinkles in time and tesseracts and the time I spend shining a light on others and learning from them deepens my work, makes it better and makes me better.
So, do you have the time to start a blog? Maybe the better question is whether you can come up with a better way of learning, growing and giving back.
My favorite book on writing nonfiction is Thinking Like Your Editor: How to Write Great Serious Nonfiction—and Get It Published by Susan Rabiner and Alfred Fortunato. One key concept they discuss in Chapter 2 is the importance of having a question that drives the book: "Every work of serious nonfiction begins with a question the author has about the topic and ends with an answer the author wants to provide." (p. 77) That question determines how interested editors and readers will be in the book.
I find that asking an overall question also focuses my writing. Knowing what question I'm trying to answer helps me decide how to structure the book and helps in making those many decisions about what to keep and what to leave out. For At Home in Her Tomb, my question was, What do the tombs and their artifacts tell us about life in ancient China?
Sometimes authors reveal in interviews, Author's Notes, or blogposts what question(s) inspired them to create their books. Here are a few examples:
To identify the question driving your own project, Rabiner and Fortunato recommend recalling what originally captured your interest in the subject "and why you find it compelling enough to write a book to answer it . . ." (p. 78).
What's the question driving your work-in-progress? Defining that question will help you research, write, and market your book.
As writers, we spend so much time agonizing over our words that we tend to get attached to them. It’s hard to look at them critically when it comes time to revise. Here are some tips to help you edit your own fiction or nonfiction picture book in three simple—though not necessarily easy!—steps.
Step 1: The Big Picture
Before you worry about the nitty-gritty, make sure your story works at the “big picture” level. Ask yourself the following questions about your story.
Step 2: Scene by Scene
Now let’s zoom in a little closer. Start by breaking your story into spreads. You can do this by making a dummy or by simply leaving an extra space between spreads in your manuscript. You’ll need 12–14 spreads for a traditional 32-page manuscript.
Step 3: Polish Your Prose
Now that you’ve looked at the big picture and the scene by scene view, it’s time to zoom in even closer and scrutinize each sentence.
Lisa Amstutz is the author of more than 100 books for kids and many magazine articles. She also offers critique and mentoring services for writers. See www.LisaAmstutz.com for more information.
Some writers like to use an outline to formulate ideas onto paper while others avoid an outline like the plague. If you’re just starting out as a nonfiction writer, the most important thing is not to feel like you have to fit into someone else’s box. Allow your brain to write as it wants to—outline or not. Until you learn to unleash the creative juices in your psyche as part of your individual and very unique writing process, give yourself the freedom to write in whatever way works best for you.
As you begin to acquire published credits, however, you’ll discover that the first thing many nonfiction editors or agents want to see is an outline. They want to know exactly where your manuscript is going and how it’s going to get there. They can’t be passing around your entire middle grade nonfiction book for everyone to read in preparation for editorial meetings. They want an outline. Clear. Concise. Complete. No secrets. No surprises. And no frills.
I remember one of the first times an editor requested an outline. I gulped. I had pitched them my nonfiction idea for a middle grade chapter book. How in the world was I supposed to know what was going to happen in Chapter 4? That would come to me as I wrote, right? Maybe so, but the editor required an outline. This request forced me to sit down and pinpoint the progression of my manuscript from Point A to Point Z with every single step in between. It took me three months of solid research and careful thought to prepare that outline.
The result? A 242-page nonfiction book for kids that has now been reprinted in its second edition, A Kid’s Guide to African American History (Chicago Review Press). You can buy it in stores and museums across the country. Even the Smithsonian sells it! Without taking the time to prepare that outline, however, I wonder if it would have been such a success.
Even a 32-page nonfiction picture book benefits from an outline. I used to just write picture books and let it flow. Not anymore. Now I map out the plot line and structure before I ever write the first word. An outline helps guarantee that the internal structure of my manuscript is solid.
For longer nonfiction projects, I usually have several outlines. I prepare a short, one-page outline to keep the overall scope of my project front and center. I create a 3-D outline by placing file folders in a pocket folder—one for each section or chapter—and tuck in ideas and information as I go. I maintain a growing working outline on my computer that functions as my research assistant.
As I note ideas, facts, or information on this outline, I also type in footnotes so I can easily find the source of that research. When I wrote my newest nonfiction for middle grades, Jane Austen for Kids, my shorter, chapter outline was 8 pages, about one page per chapter. My working outline was 32 pages long where I kept more detailed notes. Building a working outline makes the writing process easier in countless ways. Try it and see!
Anybody who has been writing for a while has been hit with the agent questions. It’s whispered and chatted about at conferences, workshops, and in critique groups. The questions sound like this:
“Do you have an agent?”
“How did you get your agent?
“Can you tell me how to get an agent?”
“Can I contact your agent?”
A good agent is worth her weight in toner ink and paper! She can negotiate a contract, critique a manuscript, and answer fifty emails all before her cappuccino cools. That’s why everybody wants an amazing agent. But--and this is a very big BUT –- an agent is only as good as the writer she is representing. To get an excellent agent you need to be an excellent writer.
New writers often believe that getting an agent is going to solve all their writing problems. The agent will edit their manuscripts, sell their work, and get them on the The New York Times Best Seller list. It’s a lovely dream, but it is not reality. Experienced writers WITH agents will tell you that it is no guarantee that their manuscript will sell. If the editors are not looking for a book about three-toed sloths and vampire bats – it’s not going to sell. What an agent can do is help you to navigate the market trends and get your work in front of editors who are looking for manuscripts in your content area. They can also be your biggest cheerleader.
BUT you may not be ready to look for an agent if you are not a polished, experienced writer. You only have one chance to make a first impression. You want it to be a good one. This is a check list that can help you evaluate whether or not you are ready for an agent.
1. Do you belong to an active critique group?
This is probably the single best thing you can do to prepare for an agent. Find a group who will tell you what is WRONG with your manuscript. You want people who are honest and will help you learn how to improve. And every manuscript can use improvement.
2. Do you have more than one polished manuscript or proposal available?
That’s right – more than one! Agents often want to see three polished picture book manuscripts. If you are writing for middle grade or young adult you need a full proposal and some additional ideas already in the development stages. Most agents want to work with you on multiple projects and you need to show that you are at that stage with your work.
3. Have you attended conferences and had professional critiques of your work?
Before you send your work out to an agent – get it evaluated by other professional writers. They can tell you if your story is ready or if it needs more work. And listen to their advice! Too often new writers discount the advice of other writers. If an experienced writer gives you suggestions for revision – consider it a gift and go revise! Negative feedback is not meant to hurt you-- it is meant to make you a stronger writer and build a better manuscript.
4. Have you had work published previously?
Have you published magazine articles or had work in professional journals? Have you done work-for-hire and learned how to partner with an editor? This can be a big plus when you are a nonfiction writer looking for an agent. Don’t discount the value of publishing in a variety of venues including hosted blogs and professional journals. Working with editors to hone your writing will be a huge advantage as you look for that perfect agent and those book contracts.
These are just suggestions for what you should do before you look for an agent. There are other things like contests, e-zines, and mentorships that can also help you reach the writing level that is necessary to attract a good agent.
Remember there is no substitute for hard work and lots of revision. Your manuscripts should be as perfect as possible before submitting to an agent. And then – if she is a fantastic agent – be prepared to some more revisions!
I have a writing coach—in fact, I have a number of them. Some work on retainer for an $18 one-time payment; many of them work for free. They are available day or night, weekday or weekend, holiday or workday. I hire my coaches at the bookstore or library. They live between the covers of carefully scrutinized children's books. My coaches are also called mentor texts.
A mentor text is a well-written book that gives you the structure, the language, the arc that you could use for your own work. It is especially useful when you hit a wall. I have a fat folder of research on an unsung, feisty American woman with lots of kid appeal. But where to start? What to put in and what to leave out? Should I use chronological, flash-back, anecdotal structure? I was stuck.
Then I came across Kathleen Krull’s Dolley Madison: Parties Can Be Patriotic! (Bloomsbury, 2015) at my library. A quick scan of the first page and I wanted to yell, “EUREKA!” I had found the coach to lead me out of my literary dead end. Kathleen Krull readily came home with me and has stayed for the last couple of weeks.
Dolley Madison is part of Krull’s series on Women Who Broke the Rules. That’s also an apt description of the heroine of my current work-in-progress. Studying the way Krull skillfully wrote Dolley Madison is like having her seated beside my desk, patiently tutoring me. Here are some of the things Kathleen Krull has taught me so far:
1. Use a topic sentence with details--but not always. Note how this topic sentence is followed by the quick fire of four telling details.
All the rules in the new country of America were stacked against women. They were like property, first belonging to their fathers, then their husbands. They couldn’t attend college. No respectable jobs were open to them. They couldn’t vote or have any role in government.
2. Use a relevant quotation to hammer home your point. The paragraph above ended with “In fact America’s FF (Founding Fathers) believed women in politics would be unnatural— ‘the world turned upside down.’”
3. When facts are skimpy, frame them with period details you know to be true. Instead of stating the bare bones fact that Dolley’s first husband and her child died of yellow fever in 1793, Krull fleshes it out this way:
Then the deadly yellow fever reached town in 1793. Spread by mosquitoes, the horrible disease killed one of every five people in Philadelphia. The victims, alas, included Dolley’s new baby and her husband.
4. Know your theme before you start and refer to it often. Krull’s first sentence is “Dolley Payne was born with extra zip.” The last two sentences of the first chapter are: “Good thing she had a third secret weapon working for her. That extra zip.” In another chapter, “Would Dolley come to the president’s house…and help? Would she! Dolley jumped in with her usual zest.” The last chapter tells us that in retirement at Montpelier, after a tumultuous and popular reign as First Lady, Dolley “was still the hostess with the mostest.”
5. Use emotional details. Emotion is what makes us connect to characters, even historical ones. With deft strokes, Krull includes heart touching details that bring Dolley, an 18th century woman to 21st century life. Here are three of them:
Any of Kathleen Krull’s many titles are a master class in nonfiction writing. Stop by your library or bookstore and invite her over. She may be just the coach you need.
We are ten authors who support readers and writers through our writing, author visits, and workshops.
Nonfiction Ninjas are a group of writers with diverse ideas and a strong belief in The First Amendment. The views expressed in each post are those of the author and may differ from others in the group.
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