by Anna Crowley Redding
True stories are powerful. They can spark passion. They can satiate and ignite our curiosity. They can inspire us in ways we never dreamed of. True stories not only help us discover and understand the world around us. But they also help us to discover and better understand ourselves. Powerful.
As writers, our task is to tell the story so powerfully that the effects of our true tale fall like dominoes in someone else’s imagination and life.
That’s a tall order––and a worthy endeavor. I’ve got just the tools to help you get there. Here’s a checklist to help you uncover every opportunity to make your nonfiction pop off the page.
First things, first. Reading your story, chapter, or scene––is it clear? Does it make sense? It’s easy for writers to learn so much about a topic that you accidentally leave out important details because they are so alive in your own head but missing from the page. It’s also easy to include every single fact you found, which can make the writing convoluted as the story veers off-track.
Give It A Try: Read your story with fresh eyes to find out if it is clear and easy to understand.
Dress up time! You have the bones of your book down on the page. But did you include some showcase facts? What’s the difference? In a narrative you need a beginning, middle, and end. Your main facts are your Who, What, Where, How, and Why? But your showcase facts are the cool twists, turns, and tidbits you discovered along the way.
In my nonfiction picture book, The Gravity Tree, my job was to write a biography of a tree. Here are the main facts. The tree started out as a seed. One of its falling apples inspired Isaac Newton. The tree almost died in a storm, but it survived and still lives today.
But along the way, I discovered that Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking visited the tree. Part of the tree was sent to space. Those are my super fun showcase facts, they make the story sparkle with surprise, depth, and delight!
This idea also applies to writing other types of nonfiction. For example, in writing a book about the solar system that is a collection of facts, you have your main facts that might include the names, composition, and location of planets. Showcase facts might be learning that the sunshine hitting your skin right now left the sun a little more than eight minutes ago! Another showcase fact: it rains diamonds on Neptune! What a cool surprise to engage your reader.
Give It A Try: Make a list of showcase facts about your topic. Now, go through your text and see if there are spots where these special twists, turns, and tidbits can liven your book.
Maserati time! Let’s shift gears. No, really, let’s shift gears. Read your story out loud. Make sure the wording and story structure allow for varied pacing, just like shifting gears in a car. Rev up when your story is more intense with shorter sentences that convey the quick pace. Downshift when your heroine has failed. If your story about a narrow escape reads like breaking news on every single page, you will wear out your reader, deplete their emotional well, and miss an opportunity to invite your reader to re-engage. Likewise, if you are explaining microbiomes, make sure your manuscript doesn’t have the pacing of a textbook on every page. You want to feel like you are shifting speeds throughout your work.
Give It A Try: Go through each scene and assign it a number 1-10. Imagine ‘1’ is slow and quiet. Image that ‘10’ is for rip-roaring action of a frantic search or runaway train. Now that you have assigned a pacing “gear” to each scene, chapter, or page, make sure you are shifting gears to tell your story with maximum impact.
I get so emotional, baby! Okay, I’ll stop singing Whitney Houston. But let’s do take her advice. Have you found the emotional heart of every scene? Go back through and make sure. Label each scene by its emotion. In The Gravity Tree, when the tree is struck down by a terrible storm, my language and pacing needed to reflect the sadness of that scene. In our planet example, the sense of discovery, the feeling of a quest, and your own enthusiasm for the topic is a critical ingredient.
Give It A Try: Go through each section and assign it an emotion. Now, make sure that emotion is truly coming through.
Word Choice Now, take each scene, page, or chapter on its own and focus on the words. Have you picked the best verbs? Is there an opportunity for alliteration to make something pop? Would a refrain make the work sing? Would a parallel sentence structure do it?
I can tell you I’m sitting by a fire. Or I can say, “My fingertips tapped the keyboard, setting their own rhythm to the crackle of the fire.” See the difference?
Give It A Try: Examine each small moment of your text and highlights words that could use an upgrade! Then brainstorm or research words that best convey what you are trying to say.
Embrace Tension! Tension is a compelling storytelling tool. When readers wonder what’s going to happen next or feel that they can’t wait to learn more, you are doing a great job! To pull this off, make sure that you stay in each moment of your book and communicate the tension and (when appropriate) the stakes. Emotion, pacing, and showcase facts can help you. Whether you are taking us along for the ride of a narrative or teaching us something fact by fact, you are building a foundation of knowledge.
Give It A Try: Make sure the baton of tension is being passed from page to page.
Can I have a moment? Don’t shortchange your ending. Give us a minute to live one more second in your book. This is like the final wave before a visitor pulls out of the driveway. Make sure your reader walks away from your book with the very purpose with which it was written. For The Gravity Tree it’s this: you may feel as small as the tiny apple seed in this book, but you also have the potential to change the world.
Give It A Try: Write down the purpose of your book, why you are writing it in the first place. Now ask yourself if your book delivers on that promise.
Meet the Author: Anna Crowley Redding is the award-winning author of more than six nonfiction books for kids and teens including The Gravity Tree, a Kirkus Best Book of 2021. Anna’s middle grade nonfiction Black Hole Chasers is a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard selection and was also named a Best Book by New York Public Library. Her next nonfiction picture book, Courage Like Kate: The True Story of a Girl Lighthouse Keeper, is coming out from Random House Studio in August 2022. Want to learn more about Anna’s approach to writing award-winning nonfiction, you can visit her at AnnaCrowleyRedding.com
I feel so inspired! Thank you for this one!ReplyDelete
Thank you so much! So glad you are feeling inspired!Delete
Thanks for this inspiring post! Can't wait to look for these elements in my manuscripts.ReplyDelete
Thank you, Linda. Good luck with your writing!Delete
Anna, your applicable steps are wonderful! Thank you.ReplyDelete
Thank you, Nicki! Happy writing!Delete
Wow! What wonderful, in-depth tips! Thank you!ReplyDelete
Thank you Katy!Delete
You have truly opened my eyes to ways to improve any story I may write! A treasure chest of information I might have otherwise overlooked. Thanks so very much!ReplyDelete
So happy to help! Good luck with your writing!Delete
Awesome checklist! It really helps to have the examples for each step.ReplyDelete
Awww, thanks Sue! Happy to see you here : )Delete
This is an excellent assignment! The same technique could be used for analyzing someone else's work. I find I play with sentence length quite a bit -- it definitely controls the pace.ReplyDelete
So glad you liked the post and the assignments!Delete
Anna, I felt each gear shift as you unfolded the power of the WOW factor! Thank you for the tips, examples, and tasks to give our scenes a new boost! Awesome post!!ReplyDelete
Charlotte, thank you so much for your kind words. They mean so much to me. happy writing!Delete
Thank you for this fantastic post. It covers all aspects of any WIP. I can't wait to read your books!ReplyDelete
Melissa, thank you! Good luck with your WIP!Delete
Anna, this checklist is just what I needed to get out of my own way. Thank you!ReplyDelete
Yay, Krissy! Good luck with your work!Delete
A fabulous list of what to watch out for and insert into our own mss; thank you, Anna!ReplyDelete
Thank you so much! You know I'm huge fan of yours!Delete
Thank you for just great tips!ReplyDelete
Thank you Rose! Good luck with your writing : )Delete
Yes! Rev up the engines, gear up, downshift, and cross the finish line with gusto and satisfaction.ReplyDelete
Yay, Joyce! Thank you for putting it such a fun way! Good luck with your writing!Delete
Anna, your tips are so specific and helpful. And I love your book!ReplyDelete
Robin! Thank you so much for reading this post and my book! Good luck with your writing!Delete
WOW indeed! This post is so incredibly helpful. I've already used many of the suggestions on a revision. Today I'll use some more and bump this baby up a level! Thanks!ReplyDelete
Yay, Traci! Thank you and I'm so glad you are on a roll!Delete
Wonderful tips, thank you!ReplyDelete
Thank you, Pam, and good luck with your writing!Delete
Thank you for some great tips to keep in mind. I'm looking for showcase facts right now.ReplyDelete
Thanks for sharing your great ideas. I particularly like the car/gear comparison.ReplyDelete
Oh, yay, Bettie! Thank you!Delete
loving it and printing it off!ReplyDelete
Wonderful! Thank you!ReplyDelete
I love the tips, especially showcasing twists, turns, and tidbits. I look forward to reading your upcoming books!ReplyDelete
Thank you so much Anna for your insights and advice. I love the concept of discovering the purpose of the story and making sure that we deliver on that promise.ReplyDelete
Thank you Julie! So glad this was a helpful post. Good luck with your writing.Delete
Anna! This post is packed with powerful pointers. Thank you.ReplyDelete
so many great tips here. I love "Dress up time!"ReplyDelete
Wow to your tips for bringing out the wow factor in a ms - will definitely be putting this to use! Thank you!ReplyDelete
So glad they are helpful! Happy writing!!Delete
WOW - this post was so helpful! I love the way you broke it down and offered such concrete examples and action items to implement the advice. I can't wait to use it as a guide as I dive into my NF MSs. Congrats on your new book!ReplyDelete
I am so glad to hear my post was helpful! Good luck with your writing. And thank you so much for your feedback!Delete
Wonderful tips on breathing as much life as possible into my story. Thank you.ReplyDelete
Thank you Sue! Happy writing!Delete
Great inspiring post. Lots of good ideas to ask ourselves when revising. Thanks so much!ReplyDelete
Yay! Peggy, I'm so glad this was helpful! Happy writing!Delete
Really needed this! Thanks.ReplyDelete
So glad it was helpful! Good luck with your writing!Delete
Anna, this is a great post. You gave us so many "give it a try(s)". Thank you for sharing your valuable tools.ReplyDelete
Yay, Mona! So glad you liked the tools and tips! Good luck with your work!Delete
Thanks, Anna! This was a rich post, full of guideposts! Thank you.ReplyDelete
I love sneaking in what you call Showcase Facts in my NF! They are so fun to uncover in research, and so fun to be able to share when I can!ReplyDelete
We are NF sisters! So glad to meet a fellow showcase fast lover! Good luck with your writing!Delete
I had to make a print out there was so much to unpack.ReplyDelete