All nonfiction manuscripts begin with a compelling topic and hours of diligent research. But when you finally sit down at the keyboard, don’t underestimate the power of language.
Whether you’re writing creative nonfiction or expository nonfiction, careful attention to style, tone, and word choice can transform a good nonfiction manuscript into a truly memorable piece.
We often hear how important “voice” is in fiction writing. It’s important in nonfiction writing, too.
Nonfiction voice has three basic components—point of view, style, and tone.
Most nonfiction for young readers is written in third person point of view, so it is style and tone that give nonfiction writing its voice. If you ignore the possibilities that these literary devices offer, your manuscripts will probably fall flat. But if you use them to their full advantage, your carefully crafted prose will delight as well as inform.
Style is the personality of the writing. Authors create it with deliberate choices in sentence structure and word choice. When I’m deciding what style to adopt for a manuscript, I think about the function of the piece and the expectations of the publisher.
Sometimes nonfiction writing should be straightforward and businesslike. But most of the time, a lively, more informal style is a better choice. Compare the two examples below. They convey almost the same information but employ very different styles.
From the Encarta Online Encyclopedia:
The outer auditory canal, which measures about 3 cm (about 1.25 in) in length, is a tubular passageway lined with delicate hairs and small glands that produce a wax-like secretion called cerumen. The canal leads from the pinna to a thin taut membrane called the eardrum or tympanic membrane, which is nearly round in shape and about 10 mm (0.4 in) wide. It is the vibration of the eardrum that sends sound waves deeper into the ear.
From Now Hear This! The Secrets of Ears and Hearing (Benchmark, 2009):
When you look at the opening to your ear canal, it’s hard to imagine what’s inside. That dark, little tunnel is about half as long as your pinky finger. At the far end, sound waves crash into your eardrum—a thin, skin-like membrane that separates your outer ear from your middle ear.
Soft, sensitive skin lines the surface of your ear canal. Just below the surface, dozens of small sacs called cerumen glands are constantly cranking out a fresh supply of icky earwax. The gummy goo oozes through tiny tubes and seeps into your ear canal through pit-like pores.
The encyclopedia entry is straightforward and informative, but most people wouldn’t want to read pages and pages of information written in this style. That’s okay, though, because that’s not how we use the encyclopedia. It’s a reference that is used to snatch small bits of knowledge and then move on.
Now Hear This! is much more fun to read. It’s also full of amazing facts that will fascinate young readers. The comparisons in the piece are relevant to the audience’s everyday experiences, and the text contains vivid, memorable images. This kind of engaging, conversational style will encourage kids to keep on reading.
Tone is how the writing makes your readers feel. Does it calm them down or rev them up? Does it make them feel joyous or sad, respectful or sassy?
Take a look at the two examples below. Can you identify some of the reasons their tones are so different?
From It’s Spit-acular!: The Secrets of Saliva (Benchmark, 2009):
Spit a little saliva into the palm of your hand. Now take a good long look. What do you see?
Spit is a clear, slippery liquid. It looks a lot like water, but it’s a little slimier, and it’s full of tiny bubbles. If you haven’t brushed your teeth lately, your spit might also contain tiny bits of food. Ew! Gross!
There’s a good reason spit looks like water. Water is its main ingredient. But spit also contains many other things. They help saliva do its job.
The slimy mucus in spit makes swallowing easier. Proteins in saliva start to break down food before it reaches your stomach. Spit also contains salts, gases, and all kinds of yucky germs. That’s something to think about the next time someone hits you with a spitball.
From When Rain Falls (Peachtree, 2008):
Inside clouds, water droplets budge and bump, crash and clump. The drops grow larger and larger, heavier and heavier until they fall to the earth.
When rain falls in a forest . . .
. . . scurrying squirrels suddenly stop. They pull their long, bushy tails over their heads like umbrellas.
A hawk puffs out its feathers to keep water out and warmth in. Chickadees stay warm and dry inside their tree hole homes.
It’s Spit-acular!: The Secrets of Saliva is intended for grades 3-5, and its goal is to get readers excited about learning. The tone is sassy, even irreverent.
When Rain Falls is for younger children. The soothing, comforting tone makes it appropriate for a bedtime story. But the lyricism will also engage children in a classroom setting. Like style, tone is created through deliberate decisions about sentence structure and word choice.
Word choice is a very big topic. In fact, it could be the subject of a whole separate post. Here are some basic guidelines for choosing words carefully as you craft nonfiction prose.
1. Strong, active verbs bring a piece of writing to life. They can make text more specific and more descriptive.
From Rain, Rain, Rain Forest by Brenda Z. Guiberson (Henry Holt, 2004):
Splitter, splat, splash! Rain gushes into the rain forest.
It soaks the moss, drizzles off dangling vines, and thrums
against slick waxy leaves.
2. Readers like surprises, such as playful and unexpected word choices. Don’t hesitate to use:
—Gross, icky, or silly words
—Big words, lo-o-o-o-o-ng words
A great example of unexpected word choices—ones that really make readers think—is An Egg is Quiet by Dianna Hutts Aston, illustrated by Sylvia Long (Chronicle, 2006). Her main text is comprised of simple statements, such as “An egg is clever.” and “An egg is artistic.” and “An egg is giving.”
Most of us have never tough of an egg in these terms. But after reading the sidebars, which present specific examples to support the general statements, readers can’t help but have a whole new appreciation for eggs.
3. The anatomical structure of our ears combined with the physical laws of sound wave transmission combine forces to make certain combinations of sounds and syllables particularly pleasing to our ears. That’s why devices like alliteration, rhythm, and repetition can give a piece of writing a magical quality.
From Home at Last: A Song of Migration by April Pulley Sayre (Henry Holt, 1998):
Out at sea, grown-up salmon remember a smell.
It’s the smell of the stream where they were born.
They’ll swim two thousand miles. Hop up waterfalls.
Just to be … home at last.
4. Meaningful comparisons enrich text by associating something that is unfamiliar with something readers know well. Similes and metaphors are powerful because they can help a reader envision a place or understand a challenging concept with ease. David M. Schwartz does a fantastic job of employing kid-friendly comparisons in
If You Hopped Like a Frog (Scholastic, 1999):
If you swallowed like a snake . . .
you could gulp a hot dog thicker than a telephone pole.
If you scurried like a spider . . .
you could charge down an entire football field in just two seconds.
5. Appeal to the senses with descriptions of smells, sounds, tastes, etc. These kinds of concrete details can transport the reader to a faraway time or place. Smell has a strong connection to memory, and olfactory details can make readers feel like they are part of the scene you’re describing. Sound effects can add fun and energy to a piece.
From Army Ant Parade by April Pulley Sayre (Henry Holt, 2002):
Chew-chew-chew ant antbird calls. Shapes flit.
A grasshopper thumps onto a trunk.
Thwap, pip, pop. Insects leap up, jump up, fly up!
Frogs are hopping. Tarantulas are scurrying.
Ants are slithering away.
The army ants are waking. . .
And they’re coming right this way!
Now it’s time for you to start experimenting. Begin by asking yourself some questions:
Could you enrich a nonfiction piece you’re struggling with by reworking its style or tone?
Are there ways you could use verbs more effectively in your writing?
Would adding comparisons to a work-in-progress help readers see your topic more clearly?
As Newbery medalist Linda Sue Park likes to say, “just play.” Don’t be afraid to write a piece several different ways and then see which version works best. Take some risks. Try new things. You never know what might happen.
This essay is adapted from a lecture Melissa Stewart gave to the students in the Low-Residency Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing Program at Pine Manor College in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts.
Melissa Stewart is the award-winning author of more than 100 science books for children. After earning a bachelor’s degree in biology from Union College in Schenectady, New York; and a master’s degree in science journalism from New York University, Melissa worked as a children’s book editor for nine years before becoming a full-time writer in 2000. She has written everything from board books for preschoolers to magazine articles for adults.
When Melissa isn’t writing or exploring the natural world, she spends time speaking at schools, libraries, nature centers, and educator conferences. She is a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Board of Advisors and a judge for the American Institute of Physics Children’s Science Writing Award.