Writing Samples, Part Deux: Nonfiction
Writing samples are those bits of writing that we send to educational publishers (and a few trade publishers) who are looking to staff specific projects with good writers. In these situations, the writer isn’t writing a piece and then looking for a market. Instead, writers approach markets and show solid writing skills through samples, and the publishers (or packagers) offer writing assignments. A few weeks ago, we looked at what makes a good writing sample with a focus on fiction. But most publishers that require you send in samples to receive an assignment publish mostly (or entirely) nonfiction. Good nonfiction samples have things in common with good fiction, but they also have their own specific requirements, so let’s look at those.
Your Reader’s Ability
Like fiction, the best nonfiction sample will match the reader age in subject, tone, and writing difficulty. Again, you don’t necessarily need to worry about matching the perfect reading level using some specific measure. The fact is that different publishers use different readability formulas and scales. But keep in mind that younger readers need short, direct sentences while older readers can handle a sentence with complex elements like introductory clauses and complex phrases. Let’s look at an example of a simple, direct sentence:
“You have 206 bones in your body.”
Bones (Step-Into-Reading, Step 2).
You can see the structure of this sentence is very simple with a subject (you), verb (have) object (206 bones) and one short prepositional phrase at the end (in your body). The very simplest sentence would not have the prepositional phrase but because the phrase is at the end of the sentence, the reading here is easy enough for students who are not yet fluent. If you move the phrase to the beginning of the sentence, you make the sentence slightly more complicated:
“In your body, you have 206 bones.”
Whenever you move elements around, you make the sentence more complex and you raise the reading skill needed to comprehend your writing. You can make writing more complex by choosing harder words. You can make it more complex by qualifying some of the information. And you can make it more complex by rendering it in passive voice. Let’s look at a considerably more complex sentence:
“If you are like most people, 206 bones are contained in your body.”
Now, the passive voice makes that sentence far from ideal and you’d almost certainly not choose to use it, but it is used here just to show complexity.
Keep in mind that simple sentences can be dull, especially when all the sentences are structured exactly alike. Sometimes your actual assignment will require that level of simplicity for reading ease, but your sample must never be dull. So adding a small amount of variety in places where it does not make the writing harder to read will help you add interest. So will choosing action whenever possible and strong nouns and verbs that are still at the correct reading level.
Readers Like Nonfiction, Honest
Many writers seem to think children don’t like nonfiction so they try to doll up their nonfiction by creating fictional characters to spout the facts or by writing in an overly chipper, cheery voice:
“Hey, kids! Today we’re going to learn about fireflies! Isn’t that cool?”
But neither thing is needed to capture the interest of children. Children, especially in elementary school, like nonfiction. In fact, some children prefer it to fiction. Cool facts and good writing are all you need to grab reader interest with nonfiction, and it’s all you need to grab an editor with your sample. So be careful that your nonfiction sample is truly nonfiction (no made-up bits at all) and that it is written respectfully (meaning that you don’t try to jolly the reader into liking the piece with an artificially chipper voice.) Also, don’t try to perk up your excitement level with punctuation. Creative punctuation doesn’t really make the piece more fun, fun, fun!!! It simply annoys the editor.
Some topics are eternally interesting to elementary readers, (examples include dinosaurs, sharks, robots, and extreme engineering) but take care not to choose a topic the editor is likely to have seen many, many times. So I’d pass over dinosaurs and sharks in favor of something interesting but less seen. In fact, if you can write an exciting, dynamic piece on some earth science topic or something related to mathematics, you would likely impress the editor much more than if you send in a nonfiction sample on the T-rex or great white sharks.
What Editors Want Most
When an editor looks at your sample, she wants to see clear organization, an interesting beginning and ending, (don’t overlook the ending. Many samples just trail off, but an ending that closes with a clever twist without drifting off topic will grab the editor’s attention.) an age-appropriate topic and tone, and lively writing. Of all of these, the one that trips writers up most is organization. Writers will try to cram together disparate information, making the sample choppy. Or writers will not think about how the information in each paragraph works smoothly together to present a single main idea. Everything in nonfiction should have a point. So if someone asked, “What is the point of this paragraph; what job is it trying to do?” You should have an answer, probably something like, “It introduces the child to ways in which the earth is much like a living creature and is always changing.” Or perhaps your point is “To show the child the sort of conditions arctic explorers endured.” When you know the point of each paragraph, it will be easier to see if everything in the paragraph supports the point or if some things have snuck in where they do not belong.
Editors will also be watching for places where you may have tried to simplify a concept and introduced error as a result. For instance, most snakes lay eggs but not all. So if you say “Like all reptiles, snakes have scales and lay eggs” then you are simplifying to error because you’re saying something that simply isn’t true of all snakes (or all reptiles). The use of analogies can also sometimes introduce error so consider your analogy carefully before you use it and then make certain the reader knows exactly what element of your analogy is in play. And be careful of things you “know” because nearly all adults “know” things that aren’t true at all. For example, I saw a children’s television cartoon that had someone at a nature center telling a class of small children that beavers live in dams. The writer of the program used something he or she “knew” because the person remembered it, but clearly was wrong and so an error was taught to all of the children watching that episode. Because your sample is displaying your best practices, it is absolutely essential that you check and double check the accuracy of every statement in it. Editors simply aren’t interested in hiring writers who don’t get the facts right.
If you do both expository writing (nonfiction designed to inform the reader about something through facts) and narrative nonfiction (nonfiction that tells the story of a specific incident) then it’s good to include an example of each. Do not include essays as they are rarely used. Narrative nonfiction can use some storytelling techniques, but be very careful that you do not allow the narrative nonfiction sample to become fictionalized. Don’t include anything that isn’t verifiable fact. Don’t make things up for “color.” Instead research enough so that you have interesting true details to share in the narrative.
People often ask me about bibliographies in samples. You will need to do bibliographies often as a nonfiction writer, but I’ve never done them in samples (back when I sent nonfiction samples) and I was offered lots of writing opportunities, so I have to assume bibliographies aren’t essential if your sample does all the other things a good sample should do (especially the organization part). When I actually do a bibliography (which, again, is not at the sample level), I use easybib.com to create the bibliography as it will apply a consistent format and help me to ensure I have all the information I need in it.
Since most of the writing assignments available to writers are nonfiction, it’s worthwhile to create nonfiction samples to send to publishers that interest you and who also assign books. By including nonfiction, you will usually receive assignments faster and more often than writers (like me) who send only fiction samples. And, honestly, though I send only fiction samples, I have nonfiction publication credits in my resume, so I still get offered nonfiction assignments. Learning to do them well will increase your opportunities, your income, and your resume.
What could be better than that?
With over 100 books in publication, Jan Fields writes both chapter books for children and mystery novels for adults. She’s also known for a variety of experiences teaching writing, from one session SCBWI events to lengthier Highlights Foundation workshops to these blog posts for the Institute of Children’s Literature. As a former ICL instructor, Jan enjoys equipping writers for success in whatever way she can.