3 Keys to Good Kid Nonfiction

Blog | craft
February 18, 2016

By Jan Fields

Last week, I talked about writing things that were sure to make a sale for
me, sure to give me that reward. One of those things for many writers is
nonfiction. Nonfiction has always been popular. Libraries and schools buy
it, and these days it is essential to school reading programs with the
common core. But nonfiction isn't just dull reports or encyclopedia-like
passages. Instead, many wonderful things go into good kid nonfiction: great
ideas, careful research, excitement, humor, and an understanding of your
audience. But most of the elements of good nonfiction can be boiled down to
three key elements: focus, vitality, and appeal.

Focus

Kid nonfiction no longer tries to give readers an encyclopedic view of a
topic. Instead, authors choose a focus, a way into the topic that carries
the most potential and excitement. For example, suppose I was very
interested in adventurers and wanted to use my interest to write some
nonfiction. I wouldn't write an encyclopedic article on what makes an
adventurer, mentioning a dozen adventurers through history. Instead, I would
focus on one particular, overlooked adventurer like Viking Gudrid
Thorbjarnardottir who (through her adventures) somehow changed the world,
and I would use this person as a vehicle to share with readers about
adventurers. If I wanted to write about green technology, I would choose one
specific element and look specifically at it, sharing about the larger
subject through the specifics of the smaller focus.

Focus can also help a writer with organization. Now many writers don't
outline before writing the article, but if you cannot create an outline that
describes the structure of the FINISHED article, then you have
organizational problems. A successful focus should allow you to approach the
topic logically and smoothly. It should allow you to classify important
things you want to include --group them -- and move from one to the next
logically. If you find odd things just happened to get tucked into a
paragraph, making it difficult to say that paragraph is about a single
thing, then you need to look closer at your organization.

A focused well-organized article should be able to be summed up in one
sentence. For example, an article I sold to Highlights might be summed up
this way: "The final Peary expedition to the North Pole overcame conditions
totally incompatible to human life and secured a permanent place in
history." This one sentence sums up what is found in the article --
specifics about the harshness of the location, specifics about the suffering
of the people, and a peek at the historical significance. With a solid
three-fold structure, organization could be smooth and simple. A three-fold
structure to your organization will often produce a solid nonfiction article
for most magazines.

If you want more writing instruction like this, plus lots of tips and great resources, click here!

Vitality

Good kid nonfiction is so intensely researched that the writer becomes a
kind of expert on the subject so that that expertise can be translated into
clear readable prose. It's very difficult to write clearly about something
you don't totally understand and I can always spot places where a writer is
fudging over something she isn't really sure about. And intense research
will lead to intense excitement about the subject -- if you find the
research boring, you've picked the wrong subject. It's also very difficult
to write exciting prose about a subject that bores you.

One element of nonfiction with vitality is crisp prose: strong verbs, clear
sentences, no extra wordiness. Imagine that you have to buy every word you
put into the article -- are you spending wisely? Or are you using extra
words in an effort to sound scholarly or professional? Kids don't care about
scholarly and professional -- they care about clear, lively and interesting.
So do editors. By researching carefully, you'll demonstrate your scholarship
by translating what you've learned into clear lucid prose -- fancy writing
won't convince anyone. Thorough information presented well with crisp
language will.

Passive voice tends to creep into nonfiction because it feels more
"writerly" when we're approaching nonfiction. It's also a sure sign of
missing that really crisp readable style. So always check your sentences and
make sure the subject of the sentence is doing something and not being done
to -- then you'll be writing stronger and with more vitality.

Appeal


Kid appeal can come from a number of different sources. If you can put a kid
into the article -- you'll have kid appeal. For example, an article about a
specific kid training for the Olympics is going to be more appealing than a
non-specific article outlining how much training is necessary for Olympic
athletes. An article on a kid who started a community project to recycle
water bottles is going to be more interesting than an article on the
importance of recycling. To catch a kid, show a kid -- it's definitely more
appealing. And for teen magazines, it's virtually essential. Few teen
magazines approach any kind of topic without specific kids in the piece
sharing from their own experience.

If you write a piece that will provide lots of visuals (whether you're
sending your own photos or not), you'll have instant kid appeal. If you look
at magazine articles on virtually any animal topic, and you'll see this form
is dominated by photo pieces where the pictures do as much as the words.
Kids want to know but they also want to see. Photos put a reader directly in
contact with the subject so a topic that leads to clear picture
opportunities, you'll have a kid favorite.

A third sure fire kid appeal is humor. Humor is one of the ways many
magazines present material that might seem didactic otherwise. Humor is a
major element of most teen quizzes, where readers laugh but also think more
about what makes a good friend, what is an appropriate boy/girl
relationship, how to handle parent/kid friction, etc. Humor can also play a
point in other kinds of nonfiction, adding a bright moment to some heavy
facts.

One question every writer should ask himself/herself -- why will a kid want
to read this? Ultimately, that question is more important than "Why should a
kid read this?" It doesn't matter how much good an article will do if a kid
won't read it. So, make certain kids you catch the reader with your focus,
vitality and appeal. You'll make editors happier too.

 

If you want more writing instruction like this, plus lots of tips and great resources, click here!

 

 

 


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