My fourth-grade science classroom is burned into my memory. If I close my eyes, I can still see the glass aquariums in the back of the room that held soon-to-be-hatched snake eggs, turtles, and mice. Adorning the perimeter of the room? The steps to the scientific method. On the board? A parade of brainy topics from the Sputnik to Dr. Jarvik and the artificial heart. The highlight of the year? Walking into the classroom to find the desks have been pushed together, are covered with trash bags and newsprint to accommodate what our teacher picked up from the butcher: a set of bonafide cow lungs. We will all take turns blowing into them to investigate how this organ works in humans. (Tip: If you blow into the wind pipe to inflate the lungs, close your mouth quickly ‘cus what goes in the lung, comes out––only with a new lung-y taste and smell.) It was a time of wonder and first touch with meaningful scientific inquiry. It was an amazing experience.
Luckily, that is no longer the case and thank goodness! Today’s nonfiction books are at turns poignant, jubilant, and fascinating––written with a hook that leaves the reader wanting to go deeper into any topic, whether science, history, social studies, math, art, etc. Not only is this an obvious win for students and young readers but this is a win for writers, too, freed from outdated misconceptions of what nonfiction must look like. Yay!
So, as a nonfiction writer where do you begin? Here’s some advice that people have given me along the way that’s made all the difference.
When I was a TV news intern in Boston, a more seasoned reporter said to me, "When you are going around in life or learning about something, and you have that thought: ‘OH! I never knew that!’––train yourself to listen to that thought, because you are not alone."
That’s tip #1 – If you hear these thoughts-- “Oh, that’s cool!” or “Gee, I never knew that.” STOP what you are doing, write it down. Write down that cool thing. NOW, look at your paper. You have a story idea! Woohoo.
Well, I learned how to answer ‘Now what?’ from one of my college professors. I took his class as an elective, because I wanted to understand how public policy was made, so that as a reporter, I would recognize flaws. That professor was none other than Governor Michael Dukakis. To this day, he is one of the smartest people I’ve ever had the pleasure of talking to (and one of the most committed to helping young people learn and become public servants).
Listening to his process, I realized it applied not only to public policy, but also to reporting and storytelling. Let’s run through it. Tip #2 is Do as Dukakis Does!
Step 1 – Take out three sheets of paper. Label the first one “history and background.” So, you have your idea. Put on your investigative hat and start jotting down bullet points that go deeper. Is your story idea about Albert Einstein’s childhood? Find out the important dates. What else was happening in the world then? What were other kids of the day like?
Is your topic cannibalistic insects? List them. When were they discovered? What are the facts, as you dive in, that still have you saying “oh, I never knew that!” List them.
Fill your page with facts!
Step 2 – Grab your second sheet of paper. Label it “Key People/Sources.” Now you are going to list off all the people you and the Google search engine can think of, who might be an expert on your topic or be able to point you to an expert. I say ‘people’ but it can also be museums, websites, books. If your story is about crop-killing bugs, you’ll want to make sure you have farmers on the list. If your story is about the Titanic, you’ll want to read first-hand accounts from survivors. If you are writing about Mars, NASA’s website might be helpful. Brainstorm who you need to talk to, places you need to visit, websites to read, books to check out, etc. Fill the page!
Step 3 – Grab that last sheet of paper and write “Connect.” Working from your “Key People/Sources” page, list all the people or places you are going to call, visit, e-mail. This is a working list so you can check them off as you go along. And as they suggest other important contacts or sources, you can keep adding to the lists.
Wait, that’s a lot of work. What’s the point?
It helps you get your arms around your story idea and research quickly and comprehensively, adding structure to the process.
So, you have a ton of information. Now, what?!
Tip #3 – Find Your Hook
Now, you need to think about your hook! In that mountain of research, what really got your attention? What do you find yourself thinking back on over and over again? When I was in journalism school, this little sentence was offered as an exercise to find the hook. Here’s the cleaned-up version:
“HOLY MOLY! I just found out that . . . !”
When you complete that sentence, you know what your hook is.
Sometimes your first paragraph is centered around your hook. But sometimes you need to set it up. To understand which group your story idea fits in to, break your story down into moments. If your story is about a person, typically the moments of their life start with 1) potential 2) effort 3) setback 4) growth 5) another setback and repeats like this until 6) Eureka! Breakthrough. This is a similar story arc to fictional stories.
If your topic is about science or math, it may too have this arc, or you might be organizing ideas together in a way that tells a story.
Tip #4- Play story time leader!
But imagine this, you are sitting in a rocking chair at story time, and you begin to talk to the wide-eyed, riveted children seated at your feet. They want to hear all about your book. Using your very best story time voice, where do you naturally begin? Full disclosure: This particular author is not above grabbing stuffed animals and acting out this scenario. It helps.
Even when you are writing for middle schoolers and young adults, you still have to tell a story.
Wait! I just realized . . . you came up with a story idea, researched it, and figured out where to start and what your hook is! I guess we better end here so you can get busy writing, because we want to read your book!
In the meantime, I am hoping in my time machine to drop off some books to my fourth-grade classroom. I think I’ll take …
Terrific Tongues by Maria Gianferri, Volcano Dreams: A Story of Yellowstone by Janet Fox, Two Truths and a Lie by Ammi-Joan Paquette and Laurie Ann Thompson.
Before diving into the deep end of writing for children, Anna Crowley Redding was as an Emmy-award winning investigative reporter, TV anchor, and journalist. The recipient of multiple Edward R. Murrow awards and recognized by the Associated Press for her reporting, Anna now focuses her stealthy detective skills on digging up great stories for younger readers―which, as it turns out, is her true passion. Her book, Google It: A History of Google, is available now in a bookstore near you.
To learn more, visit Anna's website at https://annacrowleyredding.com/