Adventures in the Real World – A Roadmap for Writing Non-Fiction
When writing non-fiction, always take a map.
All journeys need a good name
Before you set out on any voyage of discovery, it’s a good idea to name your quest. It’s something I wish I were better at, but the truth is I really struggle with titles for my books. Rebel Science was one of those rare times when the title was obvious from the outset.
A good title tells you what the book is about before you pick it up to read the blurb. Rebel Science was the story of the scientists who weren’t afraid to go against the grain, swim against the tide and call things as they saw them. The title will help you remember what the purpose of the book is when you’re mired in the middle – or muddle – of it all. A snappy hook also has the added benefit of making your publisher’s ears perk up when you casually drop it into conversation. They want to know more, and hopefully, so will your readers!
Plan your route
Journeys, just like stories, need a beginning, middle and an end. And it’s all about stories – a dry collection of facts does not a non-fiction book make. As many of the excellent #NNFN blogposts have highlighted (for example this one or this one) , we’re in the important business of storytelling.
Instead of doing a ‘straight-line’ chronological history of science from the year dot, I chose to focus on ‘stories’. Self-contained chunks, I hoped, would be a fresh and fun approach. It would – by making a feature of the windy, often circuitous routes taken on the road to understanding – avoid the preachy narrative of ‘inevitable progress’. I also wanted to suggest that the story is not yet over…
Detours are fun
Armed with your map, don’t be afraid to deviate from it. When planning Rebel Science, Red Lemon (Weldon Owen’s non-fiction imprint) was keen to plot the stories around a ‘roadmap’. Not only did this link visually with the stories’ twists and turns, but also allowed surprising shortcuts, diversions and dead ends. It’s funny to see otherwise sensible scientists coming up with bonkers ideas!
Here is the mind map I made while planning the Rebel Science, trying to make as many connections as possible.
Pack lots of snacks
My girlfriend says that if I were a superhero, I would be Factman. It’s true, I do love a good fact. But science-based non-fiction is not really about facts. (This is why I have a particular aversion to describing non-fiction as ‘factbooks’.)
A good fact is like a good snack – juicy and wholesome. It’s memorable because it’s fun. It’s also a way of drawing readers to engage with the underlying questions. (Can you light a candle in a spaceship?) Non-fiction can be loads of different things, but the things I aim for are giving a sense of wonder about the real world, and igniting the curiosity to ask loads of questions and read more.
Here is one of the “ding-dong” spreads that featured science face-offs.
Stop to stretch your legs
My non-fiction mantras:
1. Assume nothing.
2. Don’t patronize.
When writing for children, don’t’ assume what your audience does – or ‘should’ – know. Put nothing on the page that requires further explanation. It should all be there. Be as clear and as simple as possible, but don’t ‘write for kids’. I’m always amazed by feedback from children miles younger than the intended reading level.
But before this gets too author-obsessive, remember the illustrators. I have been lucky enough to work with a number of incredibly talented artists. The incomparable David Lyttleton brought the magic and breathed life into Rebel Science, dishing out humour by the gallon-flask!
Now, stop for coffee. Walk around the block. Go to the cinema… or hang out at a museum. Stretching your legs and getting some fresh air are as important on the non-fiction quest as on any other journey. This is often when inspiration strikes and different ways of doing things suggest themselves.
Dan Green is a science communicator and storyteller with over 15 years experience of writing and editing popular science titles. A graduate of Natural Sciences from the University of Cambridge, Dan has written over 40 titles for children and adults. His bestselling Basher Science series has sold over 3 million copies worldwide and his books have been shortlisted for the Royal Society Young People’s Book Prize. Dan aims to explain science, make it fun and accessible, and inspire curiosity about the world around us.
This guest post was provided by Dan Green. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Federation of Children’s Book Groups.