Guest Post: Melissa Stewart Shares How Nonfiction Writers Dig Deep

By Melissa Stewart

Many people believe that fiction is creative writing drawn from the depths of a writer’s soul, while nonfiction is simply a recitation of facts gathered from a few standard sources. Nothing could be further from the truth.

To put this troubling misconception to rest, fifty of today’s most celebrated authors for children have come together to share a critical part of the nonfiction writing process that often goes unseen.

The result is the illuminating anthology Nonfiction Writers Dig Deep: 50 Award-winning Children’s Book Authors Share the Secret of Engaging Writing (NCTE, 2020).

To craft high-quality prose, nonfiction writers have to dig deep. We have to get in touch with our passions and our vulnerabilities and use them to fuel our work. Each book has a piece of the author at its heart, and that personal connection is what drives us to keep working, despite the inevitable obstacles and setbacks.

The topics we choose, the approaches we take, and the concepts and themes we explore are closely linked to who we are as people—our personalities, our beliefs, and our experiences in the world.

As far as we’re concerned, putting the information we collect through our own personal filters and making our own meaning is the secret to creating engaging nonfiction.

Consider these brief excerpts from essays included in Nonfiction Writers Dig Deep:

“Most teachers and students . . . assume I have some ‘file of famous folks’ in a desk drawer. [But] I don’t typically start with a person at all [when I’m writing a biography]. I begin with an idea or a memory or an experience that has personal meaning to me.” —Barb Rosenstock, author of the SCBWI Golden Kite Award winner Otis and Will Discover the Deep: The Record-Setting Dive of the Bathysphere illustrated by Katherine Roy (Little, Brown, 2018)

Heather Lang

“Writing nonfiction is a highly personal experience for me—a journey. And the adventure begins with a strong connection to my topic. While the connection could be rooted in passion, it might also stem from intense curiosity . . . or fear.” —Heather Lang, author of the NSTA Best STEM Book Fearless Flyer: Ruth Law and Her Flying Machine illustrated by Raul Colón (Calkins Creek, 2016)

“I study my subject’s lives, trying to understand their inner truth. I need to know what makes them tick. But I also consider what makes me tick—my inner truth. When our truths are in alignment, that’s a story I feel that I can tell.”—Don Tate, author-illustrator of the NCSS Carter G. Woodson Book Award winner Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton (Peachtree, 2015)

“Just as fiction authors write about themes that resonate with them, so too do nonfiction authors. My themes first have to light my fire with a personal connection.” —Patricia Newman, author of the Sibert Honor title Sea Otter Heroes: The Predators that Saved an Ecosystem (Millbrook, 2017)

“I want my books to describe scientific concepts and elicit an emotional response from readers. To achieve this, I draw on the connections I forged with the subject during the research process.” —Jason Chin, author-illustrator of the Sibert Honor and Caldecott Honor title Grand Canyon (Roaring Brook, 2017)

“[T]he true tales I write spring directly from my experiences, passions, heartbreaks, obsessions, fears, quirks, curiosities, beliefs, desires. Writing nonfiction is like sitting before a blank screen and scraping off a piece of myself.” —Candace Fleming, author of the Orbis Pictus Award winner, The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia (Schwartz & Wade, 2014).

In the end, our message to aspiring nonfiction writers of all ages is simple: To create nonfiction that delights as well as informs, you need to have skin in the game. You need to be personally invested. The goal of our anthology is to show you how to do that.

Cynsational Notes

100 percent of the proceeds from Nonfiction Writers Dig Deep will be divided among the National Council of Teachers for English (NCTE), We Need Divers Books (WNDB), and the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI).

Melissa Stewart has written more than 180 science books for children, including the ALA Notable Feathers: Not Just for Flying, illustrated by Sarah S. Brannen (Charlesbridge, 2014); the SCBWI Golden Kite Honor title Pipsqueaks, Slowpokes and Stinkers: Celebrating Animal Underdogs, illustrated by Stephanie Laberis (Peachtree, 2018); and Can an Aardvark Bark?, illustrated by Caldecott Honoree Steve Jenkins (Beach Lane, 2017). She maintains the award-winning blog Celebrate Science and serves on the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators board of advisors. Her highly-regarded website features a rich array of nonfiction writing resources.