This week’s post is from John Micklos Jr., author of over 50 books with his perspective on writing effective nonfiction.
From self-help books to biographies, from cookbooks to exposés, nonfiction has long been a staple on adult bestseller lists. And with increased testing and reliance on learning standards, nonfiction has moved from “ugly duckling” status to center stage in children’s literature as well. As the author of dozens of nonfiction books for elementary readers and dozens of newspaper and magazine articles for adults, here are my keys to effective nonfiction writing:
Tell a Story
Some people view nonfiction as dull and dry, but the best nonfiction tells a story. Whether I’m writing a biography, describing a historical event, or covering a news story, I always try to incorporate these key elements:
Fun Facts: Did you know that Muhammad Ali started boxing after his bike was stolen in Louisville, Kentucky, when he was 12 years old? He went looking for a police officer to report the theft and found an officer working in a nearby recreation center. Young Ali (Cassius Clay at the time) told the officer he planned to “whup” whoever stole his bike. The officer said he offered boxing lessons—and the rest is history. When I visit schools, I ask students to imagine what might have happened if someone hadn’t stolen that bike. Would Cassius Clay still have gone on to become heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali? Indeed, this is a fun fact that can inspire a lively discussion.
Cool Quotes: I started to use one from one of my books, but let me offer this Walt Disney quote instead: “The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing.” I like that one because it speaks to us as writers (and to anyone pursuing a dream). The best quotes are short, memorable, contain important information or a life lesson, and reveal something about the speaker’s personality. This quote does all of these.
Amazing Anecdotes. At the age of 7, Amelia Earhart built a “roller coaster” in her backyard with the help of some friends. The track consisted of greased planks she and some friends angled up against the shed roof. The “car” was a wooden crate with a greased bottom. Young Amelia climbed to the roof of the shed, crawled inside the crate, and slid down her homemade coaster. Not surprisingly, she crashed at the bottom, emerging with a bruised lip and torn clothes. Was she discouraged? No! She described the experience as “just like flying.” I love this anecdote because it shows young Amelia’s love of adventure and foreshadows her famous future.
Do Reams of Research
I typically read a dozen or so adult-level books, in addition to doing LOTS of Internet research on a topic, before I begin writing a children’s nonfiction book. The more information I have to draw from, the richer the story I can weave. I try to find and focus on primary source material as much as possible—letters, diaries, interviews, information in the public record, etc.
I used to have to visit libraries, museums, or other sites to gather this information. Now much of it is available via Google search from the comfort of my own home office. The key on doing research (and especially Internet research) is making sure the information you find is accurate. That’s why primary source material is so valuable.
Focus on the Facts
They call it NONfiction for a reason. I try to present the facts as I find them. While I may have opinions about a topic, I try not to let them show unless I’m writing an opinion-based article. That’s another reason why I try to find as many primary sources as possible. It’s amazing how many opinions, myths and outright falsehoods find their way into even reputable publications.
Consider these “false facts” from history:
“False Fact”: Everyone inside the Alamo died. Truth: A number of women and children (and one male enslaved person) survived and were allowed to go free by the Mexicans.
“False Fact”: George Washington had wooden teeth. Truth: Washington’s dentures contained some interesting materials, including hippopotamus ivory, cows’ teeth, and human teeth, but they were NOT made of wood.
Check, Verify, and Check Again
I try to follow the “rule of three” when citing facts. That means I try to find the same fact in at least three different sources. That decreases the chance of citing inaccurate information. What do I do when I find conflicting information? I try to find the most reliable source. For instance, various biographers of Amelia Earhart describe her eye color as green, blue, and grey. No color photographs of her exist. How did I resolve this for my biography of her? I turned to the one person who would have actually seen her eyes—her sister, Muriel. Muriel’s biography described Amelia’s eyes as “blue-grey,” so that’s what I used. Does a small fact like that really matter? It does to me!
If I can’t reach a firm conclusion as to what is right, sometimes I provide both pieces of conflicting data and note that “experts disagree.” In other cases, I might give a broad range of figures. For instance, I did a book about the 1918 flu pandemic. Estimates of deaths from that pandemic ranged from 10 million to as many as 100 million. I stated it this way: “Most scientists believe at least 40 million people died worldwide. Some think the figure is even higher.”
Read it Aloud: This is especially important for children’s books and fiction but is helpful for nonfiction as well. Reading the piece aloud lets you hear it as a reader will process it. Doing this, I catch a lot of clunky phrasing that might escape my regular proofreading.
Conclusion: Writing nonfiction can be just as satisfying as writing fiction—and just as interesting for the reader—if you follow the tips above. While most nonfiction is designed to inform readers, there’s no reason it can’t entertain them as well.
John Micklos Jr. of Newark, Delaware, has written more than 50 children’s books, including picture books, poetry books, and many nonfiction books. His latest picture book, Raindrops to Rainbow (Penguin Workshop, 2021), is Delaware’s Great Reads from Great Places selection for the 2021 National Book Festival. John also has written dozens of articles for local, regional, and national publications. He has spoken at national conferences and often does presentations in schools.