Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Finding Your Voice in Writing Nonfiction

By Doreen Rappaport



Writing nonfiction for kids is an absolutely wonderful career. It’s a passion, a commitment to the young to present important and meaningful stories that will stretch their minds and hearts.

Research is the first step.  The deeper you dig, the richer, more interesting and illuminating will be your work. And your research will lead you to the right approach for telling the story you want to tell. Don’t worry that someone else has written about a subject you’re passionate about. There’s always room for more well-written books on your subject.  Do your research and you will find your unique voice, the hook to tell your stories.

In writing about the African-American struggle from the kidnappings in Africa to the Civil Rights Movement, I read the work of scholars who took years to untangle and present this history accurately. I read poetry, interviews, diaries, biographies, autobiographies, documents.  All these elements confirmed that this was a history of resistance, and that’s when I found my hook--resistance. Primary sources allowed me to accurately recreate historical events without fictionalizing. Having studied and taught music myself, I knew its importance as a cohesive force for Black Americans and had to include this great tradition. And so, my trilogy uses all these elements. 

Twenty-two years ago, I was asked to write a book on Martin Luther King, Jr.  There were already 10 or so books about him, and I initially resisted because there were so many other great Black Americans whom kids didn’t know anything about, and I wasn’t sure I could find a different way to write about Dr. King’s life.  But I dug in. I went to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture an immersed myself in biographies about Dr. King and in his speeches, interviews, letters, autobiographies, and diaries.  I thought about what Dr. King meant to me, about my Mississippi summer working in a Freedom School, and the joyous day at the March on Washington in 1963, and of course about Dr. King’s now famous speech, and it all came together.

My hook to present Dr. King’s life would be to combine a narrative punctuated with words by this great man, and so Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was born.

Seek out experts to clarify facts. A coal miner helped me with my book on a mining strike in Pennsylvania. I reached out to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who read and commented on every page in my almost final draft, catching confusion and demanding greater clarification, helping me simplify but not dumb-down legal arguments. I wanted to add Cherokee words and phrases to my book about Wilma Mankiller, and her husband provided them and a pronunciation guide. I have found people more than willing to help me, because they too wanted accuracy about what I was writing.

Never fear criticism.  It will only strengthen your work. Have a few writer friends whom you trust to show your early drafts. Ask them to read your revisions, also. 

Write, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.  Revision is the key to all writing.

Read nonfiction books by other writers.  When I began, I read all of Jean Fritz’s early books. I don’t write at all like her, but she taught me about “attitude” and point of view, that we all are unique, and there are lots of way to tell a story, and they are all valid if they are grounded in research and careful self-editing.

And remember, there will be stumbling blocks along the way.  Times you think you’ll never get it right. You will.  Walk away from the book for a while. Sometimes, I walk away for a month or so. Right now, I’m working on a book that I put away two years ago.

 

Give it a Try

I know you have unfinished manuscripts in your files, books you just "couldn't get right."  Well, maybe you couldn't get them "right" when you wrote them a while ago, but dig them out, re-read them, smile about what is strong, think about what doesn't work. You might be surprised that with fresh eyes you can come up with solutions to finish the book. I'm working now on a book that I put away 10 years ago. A long time, right?  Well, I think I've solved most of the problems. Getting away can be so important, and having the courage to go back is essential. Good luck!  Follow your passion! You can do it, too!

 

 

About the Author

Doreen Rappaport is an award-winning author of 75 children’s books that celebrate multiculturalism, historical events, the lives of world leaders and the stories of those she calls the “not-yet-celebrated.” Her books have received critical acclaim for her unique ability to combine historical facts with intimate storytelling, and for finding new ways to present the lives of iconic heroes such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and the Statue of Liberty. Among her numerous honors, Doreen is the recipient of The Washington Post Children’s Book Guild Award for Lifetime Achievement for the writing of nonfiction. Visit her at www.doreenrappaport.com

 

 

 

66 comments:

  1. Doreen, I appreciate your insights. Thanks for your wisdom and expertise, which came at the right time for me.

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  2. Thank you for all your tips and suggestions, Doreen! I'm inspired to keep going with my various projects.

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  3. I wrote my first narrative NF in January. This was just what I needed to hear. Thanks!

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  4. Thanks, Doreen! I sometimes want things to come together too quickly. Your wise words are a reminder to slow down and get it right.

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  5. Thank you so much for sharing your expertise.

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  6. I wrote to myself to be like Doreen, "I must research historical facts, then write intimate storytelling."

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  7. I appreciate you addressing the timing of when we get the story "right", thank you Doreen!

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  8. Thank you for this - I love the research part so much. I'm so happy when I keep digging to find connecting threads I couldn't have foreseen. (And I love your photo - it looks so happy!)

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  9. What a great kick-off post! "Never fear criticism. It will only strengthen your work. Have a few writer friends whom you trust to show your early drafts. Ask them to read your revisions, also." Words of wisdom, Doreen! My New Year's plan has been to dig into my files and see what's redeemable. Here I go!

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  10. Thank you for sharing this insightful post.

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  11. Thanks for this great post to launch NF Fest 2022!

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  12. Thank you, Doreen! You're right, it's time to revisit previous manuscripts with new eyes.

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  13. Thanks, Doreen! Just finished my first task. Looked at older ms with fresh eyes. Now I have a plan to make it better, and I was able to see what was working. This totally motivated me!

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  14. I love you're working on a book you put away two years ago. I've got one I need to dust off ....

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  15. Nice to hear there could be gold in these old manuscripts. Thank you for the serious pep talk!

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  16. Thanks for sharing on the first day of NF Fest 2022 - I especially appreciated hearing about your research techniques! Great inspiration!

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  17. Thank you, Doreen, for sharing these insightful tips and suggestions. I have an NF that's been in and out of my hands. It's been sitting for a while. You've prompted me to get it out for another look.

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  18. Great tips and insight - just what I needed to keep moving forward on a NF project! PS - we share the same name!

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  20. I enjoy your analysis, not the mention the way you articulate the driving force behind your works. I love research and am determined to mine my reporting background for more NF stories. Thanks, Doreen!

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    1. Thanks for sharing these great steps and insight. It's very inspiring. I don't usually write NF but have a few mss in my file cabinet about topics too good to pass up. Maybe I should get them back out. :)

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  21. "Walk away from the book for a while. Sometimes, I walk away for a month or so. Right now, I’m working on a book that I put away two years ago". I am doing exactly this on a story I put away 4 years ago. I am excited to be rewriting again. Thank you.

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  22. Doreen, thank you for your encouraging words. My old project is now slightly less scary and I am looking forward to an armload of your biographies and your book about the Alger Hiss trial and The Boston Coffee Party.

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  23. Thank you for sharing your experience and wisdom with us, Doreen. I'm in absolute awe that Ruth Bader Ginsberg was so helpful with your manuscript... wow... (and so courageous of you to ask, lucky you!)

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  24. Thank you, Doreen for the inspiration. I gathered my courage and asked an expert for help with my debut picture book and she said, "Yes!"

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  25. Thank you for your insight and for the encourage to find the right voice. This week I will take your advice and spending time with an earlier version of a manuscript that didn't work. I look forward to seeing what it will become. Thanks for your wise advice!!

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  27. Walking away from and revisiting stories are excellent reminders to not let good work wither away.

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  28. Thank you for encouraging us to take another look at old manuscripts we have put away. Now we may be able to figure out what didn't work and get busy making our stories shine.

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  29. I'm so encouraged to pull out a story I wrote a decade ago. Thank you for the inspiration. Cathy

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  30. Thank you for sharing your expertise.

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  31. Thank you for the insight into your process and for the encouragement to keep working on those manuscripts that aren't quite "right."

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  32. Thanks for these reminders of the basic process.

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  33. I'm just getting started. I'll tuck this wisdom away.

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  34. Thank you, Doreen, for sharing your thoughts and expertise.

    Suzy Leopold

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  35. Thank you for this reminder to pull out old manuscripts and research and give them fresh eyes.

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  36. Thank you, Doreen! My library system has 17 of your books in circulation. I just requested your book on Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I love that RBG read it for accuracy.

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  37. Thanks for your post. I've dug out and printed a manuscript that's close to my hear...revisit, rewrite, revise, revise, revise-no without the help of my crit partners of course. Great way to start a new month with an older project.

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  38. Letting a manuscript sit a while certainly does help to give fresh eyes.
    Thanks for the reminder to dig out old stories.

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  39. Thanks! I love what you said about doing extensive research to help find the hook. I've found that true in my writing. A lot of work, but worth it.

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  40. I'm really impressed by the amount and quality of your research!

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  41. Thank you for the encouragement to revisit old drafts and reach out to experts. Justice Ginsberg critiqued your story — wow!

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  42. I really enjoyed your post Doreen. This was a great start to NFFest

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  43. I love the thought of looking at old manuscripts with fresh eyes. Thank you for reminding me of all those stories that have been composting in the file drawer.

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  44. DOREEN: I am a HUGE FAN of your writing and books! THANK YOU for sharing your WISDOM about the IMPORTANCE of DIGGING IN--to research, REWRITING! REWRITING! REWRITING!!!, and revisiting our old friends in the "Filed Away" drawer. By DIGGING IN, WE WILL find our own unique voice to share important stories with the world. THANK YOU!!!

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  45. I found courage and truth in this line, "I have found people more than willing to help me, because they too wanted accuracy about what I was writing." When I'm feeling reluctant to reach out to experts, I'll remember these words!

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  46. Thanks for the encouragement and ideas!

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  47. Thank you for a great start to the month!

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  48. Thanks for sharing your knowledge and insight.

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  49. Thank you for your wonderful insights into writing nonfiction for children. I loved your thoughts on finding one's own voice and slant on topics and subjects. My perspective for my published works is resilience...

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  50. Thanks for this wonderful piece. I've been avoding a topic because I just don't know how to start, your post has given me some ideas and the push i needed.

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  51. Thanks for your tips and encouragement, Doreen. I've read a lot of great non-fiction but have never seen your books. I will be looking for them now!

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  52. Thanks for your tips! I'm struggling with this very issue but your post will help me.

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  53. Thanks for this wonderful post to kick off NFFest! I've put a few of your books on hold at my local library :)

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  54. I've a couple of nonfiction books I couldn't get quite right. This post has given me the nudge I need to open those manuscripts and rewrite with fresh eyes.

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  55. Thank you for the inspirational post! Time to dust off my old NF manuscripts, I think!!

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  56. Awesome post. It is very encouraging and helpful. I'll take a look at the two that have to date baffled me in getting the right starting point. Thanks!

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  57. Thank you for the impetus to revise with new eyes. Viva unique!

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  58. Thanks for sharing your work and your dedication to research!

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  59. Fabulous advice, Doreen Rappaport! Walk away. Seek experts.Having the courage to come back. Write, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. All so important! Thank you.

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  61. Thank you. This has helped me already to look at my stories in a more personal light.

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