Saturday, February 6, 2021

Planning, Researching, and Writing Your Long-Form MG or YA NF

By Susan Campbell Bartoletti

My 11th grade English teacher, Mrs. Walsh, was a tough battleship of a woman. She navigated our classroom like a man-of-war as she led us through the steps of planning, researching, and writing our first research paper.
Mrs. Walsh

I didn’t expect to enjoy the process, but to my surprise, I did. The library! The card catalog! The MLA index! Index cards! Pencils! Paper! Taking notes! Scissors! Tape! Footnotes! Bibliography!  

That high school assignment would prove to be a lesson that I would carry to college and to grad school and to each of my nonfiction projects today.

I share this anecdote because I want you to know: if you’ve ever written a research paper – even way back when – and if you love a true story, then you have what it takes to plan, research, and write a long-form narrative nonfiction book.

If you didn’t have a Mrs. Walsh or if you want to refresh your memory on the basics, you’ll find some useful sites at the end of this blog.

THE PLANNING STAGE

1.  Prepare physically – and mentally. You’re going to need stamina, determination, focus, passion, and time. A long-form nonfiction book takes a long time, sometimes years.

You need physical space. When I started writing, I claimed a corner of our family room. Now I have a dedicated home office, but I’m still a horizontal space usurper.

You’ll also need mental space to hold and juggle facts and details and ideas as you’re researching and writing. You need space to allow your mind to wander. Sometimes discoveries and connections happen when I’m driving or walking my dog or folding laundry. Sometimes they happen at 2 am, when I pop awake with a solution to a story problem.

2.  You need an organizational strategy. For your own mental health, don’t wait until you’re halfway into your project or – gasp! – at the end.

Software programs are available, but I prefer to take notes by hand. My supplies include a marble-covered composition notebook, pens and pencils, sticky notes, index cards, an index card file box, file folders, a milk crate, and a bulletin board.

Whatever your strategy is – high tech or low-tech - make sure it’s consistent. Even a bad system will work, as long as it’s consistent.

 

THE RESEARCH STAGE

1.  Feeling daunted? Join the club. I always feel daunted at the beginning of a new project. To settle myself, I determine my research questions.

Research is about inquiry. It’s about asking probing questions and looking for answers.

2.  Determine your story’s focus. Once you have your story’s focus will help you determine your research questions. Your focus will direct your thinking and make your note-taking more efficient and productive.

3.  Start collecting your sources. Think of your narrative nonfiction book as a true story that you’re going to tell. You’re going to base your true story on verifiable facts and information that you’ve gathered from a vast number and variety of sources.

You’ll find important sources in the bibliographies and source notes and acknowledgments and photo credits in books already published on your subject.

You’ll scour primary and secondary sources that you’ve found in the customary and usual places: the library, on the Internet, in special collections, on specialized databases, and in archives. In addition to established image collections such as the Library of Congress, I also hunt for vintage images and ephemera on eBay and other such sites.

In your search, you’ll seek out the most up-to-date thinking and research from reliable and reputable sources. You might scout out syllabi from university professors to see the texts they require in their courses. You might interview experts in the field. (If you interview and if you intend to quote the experts, I recommend getting written permission.)

4.   As you’re researching, you’ll find that others have already published books about your subject. Never fear! Remind yourself that there’s always room for a good one. It’s your job to push yourself, to examine your subject in a fresh way, perhaps a new slant.

Remember this: good ideas don’t come in the beginning. They come as you burrow down – deep dive - into your research. When it’s time to write, you’ll use your voice to tell a true story in the way only you can tell it.

 5.  Once you’ve determined your subject and you’ve done your preliminary reading, free write a response to each of these questions: What is the story you want to tell? What is your personal experience with the subject? What is your emotional connection? What is your intellectual connection?

Your connection doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve experienced the exact subject yourself. Do some time travel. Let your memory take you back to a time when you experienced a situation or an emotion that touches on the subject or the people or the events you’re writing about.

Trust the power of these questions and the power of your research. Trust that there’s a reason why you’re drawn to the subject – and if you don’t know the connection from the start, that reason will reveal itself as you move deeper into the research and writing process. Revisit these questions as you move through your draft.

6.  A marble-covered composition book becomes an important assistant: in its pages, I fret, I obsess, I keep lists of contacts whom I’ll want to include in the acknowledgments, I
summarize and discuss what I’m reading, I argue with my sources, and I argue with myself. The composition book also helps me track permissions and usage agreements.

7.  Double – and triple-check your facts. As you do, you might find mistakes in the work of others. For example, in The Autobiography of Mother Jones, labor activist Mary Jones mentions an eleven-year-old factory girl, Gussie Rangnew, who accompanied her on the 1903 march from Philadelphia to Oyster Bay, Long Island, New York.

Through my digging, I located Gussie’s grandson. Gussie, it turned out, was Gus Rangnow, a boy who grew up to become a Philadelphia police officer.

This factual mistake raises an important question: Does this error of fact change the truth of Mother Jones and her crusade? Does it change the truth of the other published accounts written about this march?

I don’t think so. As much as I like “fixing history” and getting the facts right, I know there’s a difference between what is true and what is truth.

8.  Don’t raid a primary or secondary source. Read all of an important source so that you have an understanding of the spirit and context of the quote or information.

Try your best to track each and every quote and detail of fact back to its original source. You might discover that the quote or fact was misquoted or used out of context, or even worse, that it was invented or misattributed or gasp! that horrid invention called “an alternative fact.”

9.  Travel informs my work. I try to visit the places I’m writing about for several reasons: to gain experiences that I can’t find in books, to gain an understanding of the physical and emotional landscape, to gain a better sense of the spirit of the place and people, and to collect sensory details.

10. Read sources that support your story – and those that do not. It’s good to know the opposition. It will help to inform your story and strengthen your argument. Read, too, the reviews of other books published on your subject, both professional reviews and reader reviews.

 

THE WRITING STAGE

1.  Narrative nonfiction writers use the same literary devices as fiction writers: we use our research to develop plot, to create scenes out of real events, to flesh out our characters, to create setting, and more.

The difference is this: nonfiction writers can’t invent. We cannot invent dialogue or any detail of fact. We can’t presume to know what our subject is thinking or believes. Every fact, every detail must be verifiable, based on the facts and on reason.

2.  Think about the shape of your story. How will you arrange the information into an order -- a plot -- that will best serve your story? How will you move your character(s) through time and space? Remember the rising-and-falling-action story structure (Freytag’s Pyramid or often called a “plot mountain” by some) you learned way back when? 


3.  As you prepare to write, think about the voice and tone of your story. What “attitude” will your narrative convey? Will the attitude be one of identification or one of distance with the subject? Will it be judgmental or sympathetic? Will it be humorous or serious? Or something else?

4.  Think about your story’s pacing. (Plot and pacing are not the same thing.) At what speed and what rhythm will the events of your story unfold? Do you want your story to unfold like a fast-paced thriller or adventure story? Or a leisurely epic?

 5.  Think about sensory details. It takes at least three senses to breathe a story to life. Can you work verifiable senses into your story?

 6.  Research can become a sophisticated form of procrastination. You’ll know it’s time to begin writing when the facts begin to repeat themselves and you’re no longer learning anything new.

But this doesn’t mean you’re finished. Expect that your research and writing will continue, side-by-side as you find more opportunities to lean in, to flesh out your story, to deepen your story and its meaning, and to breathe it to life -- right up until you’re ready to hit send – and beyond.

 7.  As you write, cite.

8.  Don’t lose sight of your subject. For example, if you’re writing about Abraham Lincoln, try to keep the camera on him at all possible times.

 9.  When you near the end of your writing, you may find leftover bits of research. You may be able to use the leftovers in your captions or source notes.

10. Be generous. In the spirit of true scholarship, we share our research in our bibliography, acknowledgments, and source notes. It’s not to show off how hard we worked (that would be like leaving a price tag on a gift!). We want to show readers where our facts come from. We want to help the writers who follow us. For them, our back matter becomes a trusty road map, a how-to-guide.

In case you’re wondering, I earned a 90% and a compliment (“Your material is excellent”) on that first research paper. She passed before she could see the writer I became. Thank you, Mrs. Walsh, for the lesson that made a difference in my life.

 

ACTIVITY

Examine one of the following sites:

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR  

Susan Campbell Bartoletti’s nonfiction work has received dozens of awards, including the Newbery Honor, the Sibert Award and honor, the Orbis Pictus award and honor, the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award, the YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Honor, the SCBWI Golden Kite and honor, and the Washington Post/ Children’s Book Guild Nonfiction Award for her body of work. Her most recent titles are Terrible Typhoid Mary: A True Story of the Deadliest Cook in America, and How Women Won the Vote: Alice Paul, Lucy Burns & Their Big Idea. With Marc Aronson, she co-edited two acclaimed year-based nonfiction anthologies, 1968 and 1789. Visit her at susancampbellbartoletti.com.

ABOUT THE PRIZE

Winner will receive a signed copy of How Women Won the Vote: Alice Paul, Lucy Burns & Their Big Idea (Harper 2020).

 

 

102 comments:

  1. I’ve heard that the task of organizing citations is of critical importance. Thank you.

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    1. You're welcome. IT's SOOOO important to cite as you go. Some people create the actual footnote as they write, others add it to the text. Still others use track comments. The trick is this: as you move the writing around, don't drop the footnote!

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  2. I find writing NF to be intimidating and this had some very useful tips. Thank you!

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  3. This is really helpful! Thanks for walking us through your tips at every stage. Do MG/YA narrative nonfiction books typically start with a proposal?

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    1. Good question. For my first NF (GROWING UP IN COAL COUNTRY), I wrote the entire book and then sold it. After that, it was a proposal and sample chapter. After that, it was a discussion with my editor.

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    2. Thanks Susan! That’s helpful! I have a few MG ideas brewing, but it feels daunting to embark on a long research process without knowing if anyone will want it!

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  4. A lot of great advice here. Thank you, Susan!

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  5. Susan, I have not yet progressed beyond the picture book writing stage, and I feel as though this advice applies to them as well, but I really want to bookmark your post for later reference. Thank you for all of your detailed advice!

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  6. Thanks for the thorough walk-through!

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  7. wow Susan- this is incredibly helpful. I loved the idea of asking questions before you begin research to guide and "harness" the information. I also love the reflecting stage. This post could honestly be broken down into two or three posts it's so full. I'm in the midst of one YA NF project and starting a MG project, and I will be re-reading this post a few times! Thank you!!(Not sure if you remember, but we met at a Highlights event several years ago!)

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    1. That word —“harness” — so perfect. (And isn’t Highlights a magical place? I can’t wait to go back.)

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  8. Thank you, Susan, for sharing how Mrs. Walsh's assignment has informed your work, and providing the details on steps you take to plan, research, and write nonfiction. The post is motivating and helpful. I especially appreciate the questions you ask.

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  9. This is great. I'm not messy, I'm just a horizontal space usurper ��

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  10. Thank you Susan for this, I learned the hard way about organizational strategies! I was one of those that had things on a computer & had it gone. Wow, do not want to do that twice. It's so important to back up everything.

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  11. Oh yes! I remember crying over a few losses...

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  12. Great post, Susan! I learned the value of "cite as go" ages ago when I had submitted an article to a magazine. The editor had 30 fact-checking questions and I had to go back through my notes to find each one. From that day on I keep a "footnoted" draft just for myself.

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    1. Good thinking! Yalways keep a fully sourced draft, too.

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  13. Thank you for reminding me to narrow the focus of my research and ask questions along the way to ensure I'm gathering the information I need. I've got some organizing to do!

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    1. Me, too. Organizing is always on my to do list.

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  14. I loved step 5 -- finding your connection to the subject. This is what I'm going to focus on now -- why do I want to write this book? What is the attraction? Thanks!

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  15. Thank you for all your valuable information. All I’ve written is PB manuscripts. I’m trying to learn about nonfiction because I want to attempt a nonfiction book this year. Your information will be so helpful. Interestingly enough my Mrs. Walsh was my orchestra director Mr. Lowe. I had to write a term paper for him in Music Theory class. I took that paper with me to college and used it as a guide for all my papers there.

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  16. I too remember enjoying - yes, enjoying! - researching and writing papers in high school. Learning how to dig for that nugget of information, to organize my thoughts, to write concisely and persuasively - I guess that should have been my first clue that I am a bit of a nerd. Thanks for sharing your very helpful insights and tips.

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  17. Wow, thank you so much for sharing all this great information I definitely will be using those questions and research suggestions if I do a bibliography and in my narrative nonfiction or nonfiction book.

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  18. Susan, you had me going from the start! You took me back to that very first research paper and the tools I used at my Carnegie library. Thank you for sharing your research process--so filled with awesome tools to use now!

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  19. As a former librarian, your post warmed my heart, Susan! What a wealth of information and a great reminder of wonderful resources to guide us on our quests. Thank you!

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  20. Wonderful post, thanks so much. I love the part about connecting. I'm a native California gal and would like to shine a light on all the women who have helped this incredible state thrive.

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  21. I loved the idea of scoping out university syllabi! Thanks so much for these hands-on details.

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  22. Thank you for your tips, suggestions, and helpful links for diving into research. When tackling long-form or short-form (picture book) nonfiction, your post is a guiding light. I will be re-reading it and keeping it handy! Thank goodness for teachers like Mrs. Walsh who made a difference because of their thorough and loving approach.

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  23. Thank you! Even though my writing isn't long form, I still gathered useful tips!

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  24. Thank you so much for all your author-tested guidance and helpful links. I am printing this out to help me as I work on my next research project!!!

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  25. Information overload! What a great post!!!

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  26. I love your list format post (because I'm a list-freak) on doing research, Susan! Thank you!

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  27. Thank you for the reminder of what to do and what NOT to do. It's been a while since I've written a research paper and your comments brought it all back, the good, the bad and the ugly! Ha. But, it is very relevant to the process of keeping your writing on track and making sure you move forward in the way that makes sense, and so that you don't have to backtrack because you skipped a step. I appreciate this so much!

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  28. I’m working on nonfiction picture books; I’ll admit that long form/MG intimidates me! Thanks for the reassurance and helpful steps!

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  29. Hello Susan Bartoletti, Thank you for your process tips and encouragement for writers who love the research process. I like your 'shout out' thank you to your 11th grade teacher! She would indeed be very proud.
    Looking forward to reading your book titles and sharing them with my grands.

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    1. I have a feeling Mrs Walsh wound still deduct a few points for something f! She was tough!

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  30. This is an extremely helpful post. I wish Mrs. Walsh could read it!

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  31. Wow, you offered so much helpful information in this one post.
    Thanks so much, Susan.

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  32. Thank you for these encouragements. I like research, too. I'm not very good at keeping the notes on where I saw or found something important, so I'm hopeful to use this time to retrain myself.

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  33. I'm an ace at research, but end up with so much of it that organizing and writing the bibliography is horrible. Thank you so much for this help! I'm really excited!

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  34. Thank you for your useful tips. I look forward to reading your books. I have learned more about just about everything from reading Non-fiction picture books.

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  35. I love researching and I actually enjoy citing. Your writing tip #6 really hit home, though: "Research can become a sophisticated form of procrastination." I've asked myself, how much research is too much? Thank you for the helpful measure of advice to answer that question!

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  36. Wow! Thank you, Susan, for this excellent step-by-step guide! It makes me wonder if I ever wrote a true research paper in school. I do have a tactile memory of flipping through the card catalog. :-) I appreciate your underscoring the difference between what is true and what is truth. By the way, what was the subject of that first research paper?

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  37. Great info. You make it seem possible. Persevero

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  38. Susan, Thank you so much for your tips and suggestions, and especially for the Purdue University link! It's been a long time since I've thought about searching a card catalogue or microfiche. I love your comment to not lose sight of your subject and remember to be generous. Thanks for a great post.

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  39. Susan- You take us through your wonderful journey and give us the equipment to now take the same research journey as writers. Thank you-very useful and inspiring.

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  40. Thanks for a helpful and encouraging post. The highlights for me: It takes at least three senses to breathe a story to life. There's a difference between what is true and what is truth. A solution to a story problem can spring from the subconscious. Great to remember!

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  41. Wow, Susan! You gave us a primer to write long-form or a short-form NF book. Printing this one out! TY.

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  42. This was great. Like you, I loved writing my high school research papers! The piles of books, pages of notes and photocopies of encyclopedia entries, not to mention the notecards (I like putting things in notebooks, but I think we had to have the notecards for class) and, yes, rifling through the card catalog. Bonus points for papers where I had to use the microfiche machine!

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  43. I don't see myself writing long NF...but you never know! Your tips and suggestions can help for short NF, too. I will be reading this again. Thanks.

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  44. Susan, this is so helpful! My Mrs. Hightower was very much like your Mrs. Walsh. We were blessed to have such incredible teachers cross through our lives. Thank you for sharing your writing wisdom; it is wonderful!

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  45. Tidbit that really hit home to me was "good ideas don’t come in the beginning.." That gives so much power to the research and discovery of new information.

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  46. Thanks for sharing such great information. I appreciated the sites shared for the activity.

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  47. Thanks so much for all the wonderful information! I love the line ~ 'there's always room for a good one.'

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  48. Thank you, Susan! Your post has so much useful information. Purdue’s website is now bookmarked. I plan to try their exercises to strengthen my writing skills. It’s the little boosts that help make big leaps.

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  49. Excellent post filled with useful information! Thank you, Susan!

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  50. Thank you for sharing this treasure trove of your process so generously with us

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  51. Thank you so much for sharing these great ideas as well as your process.

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  52. I remember looking at your notebooks at a long-ago Highlights workshop and being very impressed with your attention to detail. This is a very useful post. Thanks.

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  53. Wow! This is quite a tutorial. Thank you so much. Will have to read and reread, read and reread!! Thank you.

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  54. So glad I stumbled upon this information before I started researching a non-fiction book I’m hoping to write- this is AWESOME!

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  55. Wow, so much helpful advice - will definitely be keeping this as a resource to refer back to - thank you so much! And I love the distinction you make between true v. truth. I use marble composition notebooks, too. :)

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  56. I do quite a bit of research for each book in my historical fiction chapter books in my HISTORY'S MYSTERIES series, but this article showed me how to fine tune my existing research processes. I've also used Grammarly in the past but will check out the other sources.

    Great post!

    Donna L Martin

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  57. Thanks for walking us through the steps! I always get overwhelmed in the beginning of the research phase so it's nice to know others do as well...

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  58. What a fantastic post - I'm printing this out a a helpful roadmap. Thank you!

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  59. As a die-hard research geek, I have spent hours trolling for tidbits and goodies on line, but suggestions to look at something I'm not used to, can bring up some resistance. When I checked out the program at Purdue, I was amazed at the richness of offerings and options; bibme was a surprise, and grammerly got my dander up at its 'taking over' my writing. Even so, I'm glad I stretched enough to take a look at all of them. Thanks for the excellent suggestions.

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  60. Research is the key. Thank you, Susan, for walking us through your steps and process.

    Suzy Leopold

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  61. Thank you for the reminder that writing MG and YA nonfiction can take a long time. I tend to get bogged down when I realize I've put in hours and hours of work and I'm still no where near finished. Wonderful post!

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  62. Thanks for sharing your detailed process! Organizing beforehand is smart!

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  63. All of these steps are so helpful! Thanks, Susan! Some day I hope to write longer NF when I've found the right project :)

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  64. Love the picture of your high school English teacher. Priceless!

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  65. Hello Susan, I appreciated your thorough post - research is so complex. Your post helped. Thank you.

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  66. Your article reminded me of my College Thesis. I had boxes and boxes of hand written notes and research that I kept for years. Even now, more than thirty years later, my first couple of drafts are hand written. I am a writer.

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  67. Thank you Susan for this great post. I could have used your incredible insights 7 years ago when I began writing biographies for younger readers! :) I love how you begin your tutorial with the importance of being able to connect with your subject in some way from the outset. So true. I love your work and so enjoyed meeting you at Highlights a few years ago. Keep up the great work!

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  68. I'm afraid that I WAS the dreaded Mrs. Walsh, or more correctly Dr. Weber. Now I find that I'm having to remember and apply my own advice in my new pursuits. It's different being on this side of the desk, but I'm loving it!

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  69. This was such an informative post - I took so many notes. And thanks for the advice "as you write, cite!" and the links for the bibliography/citation generator.

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  70. Half of me is on the right track and the other half is grateful for this informative article. Thank you!

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  71. I think the biggest lesson I've learned in NF writing is "cite as you write." I spent hours trying to recall sources for my first NF manuscript. MISTAKE!! I'm writing a historical fiction MG right now, where it's just as important for me to keep track of my sources. I used to use a bibliography generator, but now I just enter everything into Scrivener as I go. The Purdue OWL site is my "go to" for double-checking my citations.

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  72. What a well-written, informative blog posting here! Thank you so much! The statements of guidance and direction are very helpful--bringing back to my remembrance what I have learned and taught over the years using the writing process! I choose the Grammarly.com site to analyze, as I have seen it online and have been somewhat intimidated by it. Now is the time for me to override the intimidation, buckle down and use it! Again, thanks!

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  73. Reminds me of my 11th grade Advanced English teacher, who treated me like I would never amount to anything. So I picked a research topic that I was 99% sure that she knew little about - Quakers.

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  74. Getting written permission from quote sources...never would have thought to do that. This is just one of about 100 great points you've made here I will hold on to for when I'm ready to work on long-form!

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  75. I’ve never thought of writing a NF novel but this is super helpful in case I ever do, and even when using real facts in fiction.

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  76. Your post was so detailed and informative! I took pages of notes. I appreciate you putting the process in individual steps for those of us starting out. It was very helpful! Thanks so much! :)

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  77. My 12th grade high school English teacher wasn't battle tough, but she did give me a chance - something no other English teacher had done for me. I credit her with where I am today as without that chance, I'd be somewhere very different. Thank you for the reminders on the stages of research. It is easy to try and skip a step or two in the research process, but inevitably we have to make a u-turn and go back and follow every step! I'm excited to tryout this activity.

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  78. Susan,
    I heard you speak through Highlights and I'd love to read your book about women Getting the Vote. I will think about the attitude in my story. thanks for this quote: As you prepare to write, think about the voice and tone of your story. What “attitude” will your narrative convey? Will the attitude be one of identification or one of distance with the subject? Will it be judgmental or sympathetic? Will it be humorous or serious?

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  79. What a wonderful treasure trove of information! I took so many notes! Thank you for this incredibly helpful post!

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  80. WOW! This post is a keeper. Thanks for giving such a thorough review of what it takes to write a narrative nonfiction story.

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  81. That crate of organized research is inspiring! Thanks for sharing!!

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  82. Thanks, Susan, for the thorough lesson in writing narrative NF for MG or YA.

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  83. Your opening paragraph made me laugh out loud! If you changed Mrs. Walsh to Mrs. Johnson, it was the perfect description of my 11th grade English teacher. I regret never thanking her for teaching me to write an organized research paper. I still take notes the way she taught me forty years later. Thank you for the laugh and the helpful information.

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  84. Great information. Thanks for sharing, Susan!

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  85. Susan, this is such a helpful post! I love your description of using sensory details to “breathe a story to life”!

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