Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Writing Children’s Non-Fiction Made Simple

Of course, this isn’t really about anything being simple. I just thought I’d take a magazine cover-line approach and use a completely misleading headline to increase readership.

I’m giving a talk soon about writing children’s non-fiction, and as an exercise I’ve tried to articulate a list of rules & guidelines I follow when writing. These are rules that apply to my own writing — I’m not suggesting that anyone else should follow them. Well, maybe one or two of them.

• Don’t underestimate the ability of young children to understand abstract concepts.

• Put new concepts and information into a context that makes sense to children. Try to use metaphors or comparisons with something familiar. Sadly, the standard measurement unit of my childhood for things of modest size — the bread box — is unfamiliar to most kids today.

• Don’t mix different units of measurement or meaning in the same comparison. I see this all the time in adult writing, even in publications like the New York Times, and it always annoys me: “There are only 500 animal A’s found in the wild, and the population of animal B has decreased by 80%.”

• Clarify terms that seem simple but have multiple interpretations. This is a common problem with scale-related information: “Animal A is twice as big as Animal B”. What does ‘big’ mean? If it’s based on length, and if the animals are similarly proportioned, then animal A weighs eight times as much as animal B.

• Introduce a few new terms and vocabulary words, but not too many for the reading level of the audience. If possible, use new terms without formal definition in a context that makes their meaning clear. It’s more fun for kids to figure out for themselves what a word means.

• Don’t anthropomorphize. Like I said, these rules are for me. There are lots of great natural science books that use the first-person voice of animals, natural forces, even the universe. But these books make it clear from the beginning that there is poetic license involved, and that the reader is being invited to use their imagination to see the world from the perspective of some other entity. I’m more concerned about casual references to the way animals ‘feel’, or what they ‘want’, in the course of what purports to be a objective examination of their behavior.

• If possible, anticipate the questions suggested by the facts being presented and answer them. This can be a never-ending sequence, one answer suggesting another question, so at some point one has to move on, but if we point out that an animal living in the jungle is brightly colored, it’s great to be able to say how color helps the animal (as it must, in some way, or it would have been selected out). Does its color warn off predators, attract a mate, or — counter-intuitively — help it hide? A colorful animal that lives among colorful flowers may be hard to spot.

• Try to avoid the standard narrative. For many subjects, a typical story line seems to have developed. Or there is an accepted linear sequence of introducing concepts. Teaching math is an example: arithmetic, geometry, algebra, calculus. There is some logic to this, but even a child that can’t do long division can understand some of the basic applications of (for example) calculus. Often the same creatures or phenomena are used to illustrate a particular point. Symbiosis: the clown fish and anemone. Metamorphosis: butterfly, frog.

• Don't oversell science as fun, or make it goofy or wacky. There is thinking involved, and work. The fun and satisfaction come from understanding new things and seeing new connections.

• Don’t confuse the presentation of facts with the explanation of concepts.

• Don’t follow lists of rules.

That’s it! Just follow these simple guidelines, and everything will be perfect. (Results may vary. Past performance is not a guarantee of future results. For external use only.)


teacherninja said...

Thank you for the post! Not only good tips for writing, but for teaching. And thank you for the amazing body of work. My students and I enjoy them every year.

Olugbemisola (Mrs.Pilkington) said...

Great points about not mixing different units of measurement, and clarifying terms. Fantastic post -- exemplifies your tips wonderfully!

Anonymous said...

Excellent points all, Steve. Some of them (like the mixed comparisons), I couldn't have articulated myself, and yet I know I don't like it when I see it. And you've taught me why!