Monday, November 30, 2009

The Art of Nonfiction Writing

Recently I came across a funny and insightful article in the Globe and Mail, written by Canadian humourist, Will Ferguson. It was titled, "How's the book coming? Well, let me tell you..." and it described what it's like to be up against a deadline, and the many ways that authors procrastinate.

What I liked best about his piece was his comparison of writing fiction and nonfiction, and how they are different. For your reading pleasure, I quote him here:

"I've always said that fiction and travel writing are comparable to two types of sculpturing. Fiction is like working with clay; you build something up from a single character, an image, a scent. It's the art of addition. Nonfiction, and travel writing in particular, is like working in stone, cutting away everything that doesn't fit. You start big and pare down, reducing the mass of possibilities, trying to decide what matters, what doesn't."

Me again. When I talk about writing nonfiction for children, I like to say that the author's job is to know (or find out) as much about a subject as possible, then determine what the essence is, and decide what to leave out — in order to shape the information into a form that is meaningful for our youngest readers.

It's an art to be simple and concise, while retaining the essence of a topic, and yet convey enough information in a way that delights, delivers, matters, and holds a child's interest.

An American children's nonfiction author I admire, and who does this so well, is Gail Gibbons. (She even illustrates her own books. Wow! Multi-talented.)

I wish I could have explained the process as well as Will Ferguson did (smart man!) — but alas, I cannot. However, I may borrow his quote from time to time. If you'd like to read the entire text of his article, you can find it here.

On Wednesday night, I'll be speaking to library students in a UBC class (thank you for inviting me, Professor Judi Saltman!), and talking about these very matters. Wish me luck. :-)

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