Good morning! Ready for your Monday Morning Warm-Up? Stop by Jo’s blog for that, and then come back here, ready to work on some nonfiction because today’s Teachers Write guest author is Sarah Albee! Sarah writes nonfiction books for kids in grades K-9, including POISON: Deadly Deeds, Perilous Professions, and Murderous Medicines and George Washington, First President. Other recent nonfiction titles include Why’d They Wear That?, Bugged: How Insects Changed History, and Poop Happened: A History of the World from the Bottom Up. She loves visiting schools and presenting to kids of all ages. She joins us today with a mini-lesson about all the choices that go into creating a work of nonfiction.
So much of writing is about making choices. Fiction writers make many choices before setting pen to paper: What is my setting? When does my story take place? Will the point of view be first person? Close third? Will my narrator be reliable, or not?
Nonfiction writers also make a lot of choices. If you’re writing history, the first decision is—what story from the past will I choose to tell? Which facts will I include, and which ones will I leave out? Where will I begin, in order to hook my reader? And finally—what voice will I use? Objective? Dramatic? Funny?
Informational writing can be a struggle for many student writers. Faced with an overwhelming mound of research notes, young writers sometimes bung every fact they can into their essays or research papers, with little coherency or clarity.
At school visits, I tell kids that professional writers often struggle with similar challenges, particularly making choices.
Here’s how I explain my own decision-making process to kids. I show them this picture:
It’s my 32-page biography of George Washington, alongside Ron Chernow’s 900-page biography on the same person.
I explain that I had to make a lot of choices about which facts about GW to include, and which ones I would have to leave out. I take kids through my research process, which included spending a week at Mount Vernon as a “visiting scholar.” I talk them through some of the decisions I had to make. Often the choices a writer makes reflect who the writer is as a person. For instance, I happen to be fascinated by what people wore. I even wrote a book on the subject. So I chose to include the fact that George did not wear a wig, although he did put powder in his hair.
I also love dogs, and wrote a book about them. So I wanted to include the fact that George loved dogs.
I also wrote a book about sanitation. While I personally find this detail compelling, could I justify including Mount Vernon’s three-seater outhouse in my 32-page book? (Kids always giggle at this one.)
That one I had to let go.
How about this super-cool Mount Vernon ha-ha? (If you don’t know what these are, read this. Sadly, had to leave that out, too.
What about the fact that George Washington owned 316 people? The photo below shows the slave quarters at Mount Vernon.
That I felt strongly should be in the book.
Next I discuss how I decided where to begin. I call on volunteers to be my human note cards. I shuffle my kid-note-cards around in the order that I chose to lay out my biography. As I do so, I explain my choices.
I talk about how I thought my choice of an opening story would hook my readers and make them want to know more about George Washington. I explain that while it’s good to know that George was born in 1732, there’s no need to start with the day he was born. Frankly, he was probably not a very interesting baby. Most babies aren’t, except to their parents. If Mr. Chernow had started his 900-page book about George as a droolly baby, his readers might not stick it out for the next 899 pages. Better to choose a moment in your person’s life, something that you think sums him or her up and helps your reader understand the essence of that person—an event, a discovery, a moment of bravery or peril. And make that moment dramatic, with good writing.
Your Assignment: Choose someone to write about. It might be a famous person, a little-known person from history whose story you want to tell, or yourself. Write down 8-10 facts about this person’s life. Birth, family background, all that basic stuff, sure. But include at least a few pivotal moments in the person’s life—triumphs, disappointments, adversities that shaped him or her (or you).
And now, write the first two or three sentences of this biography—but make some choices before you start writing. Where will you start your story? Which facts from your list really sum the person up and give your reader a sense of who they are? What voice will you use? How will you hook your reader? Share a bit of what you wrote in the comments if you’d like!
Extra Credit Assignment:
If you’re really feeling inspired: write this person’s entire biography in 200 words or less. They should be full sentences, not bullet points. You’ll discover that you’re going to have to make a lot of decisions about what to leave in, and what to leave out. (Like, adverbs.) Your writing will be spare, but you may be surprised to find, it’s clear, too. You have zero room for obfuscation.
I told my history-teacher husband he should do this exercise with his high schoolers. Make them write their research papers in 200 words or less, before they write them in 5 or 10 pages. Maybe next year.
Choose Your Stories
Whether you’re Ron Chernow or me, a fiction writer or a nonfiction writer, a picture book writer or a poet, all writers have to make choices. And now, go forth and write, Teacher-Writer friends! There are so many stories to tell.
**Special Teachers Write Giveaway**
Let me know your thoughts in the comments. I’ll respond, and will draw a random winner to receive a copy of my latest book, DOG DAYS OF HISTORY, by Friday.