Nonfiction Rocks!

Steve rocking non-fiction books


Nonfiction Matters! Kids want to know stuff; they want information about the world they live in -- what makes a car run? where do birds fly in the winter? how come the dinosaurs went extinct? why do leaves change in the fall? who was Martin Luther King? when did the Civil War begin?

Teachers, librarians and students desire stories about real people, real places, and really interesting world events. Kids yearn to fill their minds with facts -- animal facts, historical facts -- facts, facts, facts! Students read to learn! In elementary schools, 50% of all reading -- across all subjects -- is nonfiction. Everyone wants and needs nonfiction or informational text.

Nonfiction is the focus of the new Common Core standards! I love fiction. But I REALLY LOVE nonfiction! I’m so psyched that nonfiction is getting much more attention! It’s well deserved.

I share below some of the things I’ve discovered after many years of researching and writing about nonfiction subjects.

Making Nonfiction Writing Come Alive

By Stephen Swinburne

Find the Passion

In order to make nonfiction writing come alive, it helps if you’re passionate or curious about the subject. I’m passionate about the natural world, so I love researching and writing about nature. Find something that you are really, really interested in and then you’ll have an easier time researching and writing about your topic.

Do "Octopus Research"

Like an octopus searching everywhere for food, I have fun and search everywhere for information. Try to dig up really cool facts. Read books and magazines. Check out web sites. Interview experts on the phone. Take field trips. Join an organization. Visit a zoo or museum or historical society. Ask your librarian. Become a mini-expert. Act like a sponge and soak up information and then sit down and write.

Write a Great Beginning Sentence

In the first sentence you want to hook the reader. Here are some ways to grab the reader’s interest; Begin with a question (Do you know that Emperor penguins live where it’s 80 degrees below zero?) Begin with dialogue. ("I feel like a large caterpillar this morning", said George as he tumbled out of bed.) Begin with an interesting fact. (Sloths don’t poop in trees!) Begin with an unusual image or picture. (The wind blew so hard it lifted the butterfly high above the ocean waves.) Begin with action. (The pack of wild dogs woke, stretched and set off at a trot to hunt.) Begin in first person. (On an early autumn evening, I sit on a hillside listening for coyotes.)

Show, Don’t Tell and Write With Details and Verbs

Try to write with specific honest information that shows, rather than tells, the reader what is happening. For example, "The wolf looks angry" is a sentence that tells. "The wolf’s lips curled revealing its sharp teeth" is a sentence that shows a reader what is happening and shows how angry the wolf is. Put a clearer picture in the reader’s mind by using concrete information and replacing general words with specific words. Instead of writing, "Steve likes candy," try "Steve likes M & M peanuts." OR, better yet, go for a stronger verb: "Steve adores M&M peanuts." Instead of writing, "I heard a noise," you might write, "I heard a scream or a squeak or a rattle or a creak or a moan or a phone." Make interesting details and strong verbs your friend!

Tell Your Story in Different Ways

There are lots of ways to write your nonfiction story. Try writing a poem. How about a photo essay? You might write an interview, a funny story, a first-person account, a day-in-the-life-of story, a how-to, an historical review. If you’re stuck, read something by one of your favorite writers to get your own writing juices going. Have fun. Be creative. Let your imagination go.

Let Your Writing Cool

When you’ve finished writing, wait a day, and then come back to your story and re-read for spelling mistakes, awkward sentences, too many adjectives or adverbs,etc. Ask yourself - how can I make it better? Plan ahead and give yourself time to write just the right story!

Great Books on Nonfiction and Writing

Steve holding non-fiction books

Books on Teaching Nonfiction Writing

Nonfiction Mentor Texts - Teaching Informational Writing Through Children’s Literature, K-8 by Lynne R. Dorfman and Rose Cappelli, Stenhouse Publishers.

Nonfiction Matters: Reading, Writing, and Research in Grades 3-8 by Stephanie Harvey, Stenhouse Publishers.

Nonfiction Craft Lessons - Teaching Information Writing K-8 by Joann Portalupi and Ralph Fletcher, Stenhouse Publishers.

Nonfiction Writing From the Inside Out - Writing Lessons Inspired by Conversations with Leading Authors by Laura Robb, Scholastic.

Writing to Explore: Discovering Adventure in the Research Paper, 3-8 by David Somoza and Peter Lourie, Stenhouse Publishers.

Books on Writing

You’re marooned on a deserted island--here are the five books on writing you need:

The Writing Life by Annie Dillard, Harper Perennial.

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King, Scribner.

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott, Anchor. (IF you can take only one book, choose this one!)

On Writing Well by William Zinsser, Harper and Row.

The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White, Macmillan.

Four great books with writing lessons

Razzle Dazzle Writing by Melissa Forney, Maupin House Publishing.

Easy Poetry Lessons That Dazzle and Delight (grades 3-6) by David Harrison and Bernice Cullinan, Scholastic Teaching Strategies.

The Most Wonderful Writing Lessons Ever - Everything You Need to Teach the Essential Elements - and the Magic - of Good Writing (grades 2-4) by Barbara Mariconda, Scholastic Teaching Strategies.

25 Mini-Lessons for Teaching Writing - Quick Lessons That Help Students Become Effective Writers by Adele Fiderer, Scholastic Teaching Strategies.


Steve and camera Photo tips from Steve Swinburne

Besides complimenting your manuscript, you can tell stories with photographs. Children love looking at "real things"; at photos. As in any story, strive for a beginning, middle and an end in your photo essay. Tell a story! Keep a tight focus. Don’t show the whole world of birds; focus on the great horned owl. In my book, In Good Hands, I told the story of how an orphaned baby barred owl was rescued, rehabilitated and then released to the wild at the end of the book. WHILE, I highlighted the story of the barred owl, I touched on many other features of birds of prey. You can tell a tight story, but still cover lots of other information.

Devise a photo want list. Make a list of the photos you need to take (or find). Plan how you will shoot them. Do you require models? Do you have model releases? Any person that appears in your book must know they are being photographed for a book.

Tell a story. Think beginning, middle and end. If you’re shooting the life cycle of the monarch butterfly for a magazine article, make sure you’re available for all the important life stages as the butterfly transforms from egg, to larva, to pupa, and finally to adult butterfly. Think ahead. Check weather. Scout locations. Have contingency plan.

Camera check. Make sure your batteries are fully charged. Have an extra battery. Once upon a time, photographers used "film" in their cameras. Years ago, I remember running out to the middle of a Vermont field at twilight as a big beautiful summer moon rose. I set up my tripod and for the next twenty minutes photographed that moonrise. I drove home and soon learned I had no film in the camera. Oops. These days we have to check we have enough space on our memory cards.

Find a fresh approach; a different hook. Has this subject been covered before? Think about a new way to tell your story.

Tell your story completely. Film is cheap, as they say. So shoot, shoot, and shoot some more. Digital has made life easy. You can shoot till the cows come home. (There’s a book! The Cows Came Home) It’s better to have more photos than not enough. Before you leave that beach, that forest, that great location, ask yourself: do you have all the shots you need for your project?