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It's Only Natural to Write Nonfiction

by Margriet Ruurs
 | Oct 16, 2012
As a writer, I enjoy creating poetry and fictional stories. But I think that writing nonfiction is one of the most exciting genres because it allows me to delve deeply into a subject in which I’m interested.

Nonfiction is also one of the first genres children are interested in, well before they can understand a fictional concept. Young children want to read about trucks, helicopters, and dinosaurs. As they get older, kids should be encouraged to delve into nonfiction topics for both research and writing purposes. The process of finding answers to questions when writing nonfiction is exciting and interesting. As long as students can explore a topic of personal interest, they’re more likely to be enthusiastic and committed researchers.

Teacher and nonfiction writer Deborah Hodge says, “Children have a keen and innate enthusiasm for the natural world. It is the nonfiction author’s job to observe what you are writing about, be it bears in the wild or butterflies in the backyard. There's no way to be authentic and to convey enthusiasm for a subject unless you've actually felt or witnessed it for yourself.”

Take students on a schoolyard exploration. Form partner teams of two and ask teams to look for interesting things in nature. In an inner city school yard, this might be a spider’s web, leaves changing color, or even weeds growing in the cracks of the pavement.

Writers are curious. Encourage students to ask questions, such as:
  • What kinds of bugs do they see?
  • What do these bugs eat?
  • How long will each bug live?
  • How does a bug reproduce?
After observations, taking notes and writing down questions, invite each team to select one question to which they do not know the answer. I noticed ants carrying crumbs and leaves, so my sample question will be “How strong is an ant?”

The next step will be to find answers. Take students to the computer lab and show them how to use a search engine to do research. Type in key words of your question. I might type in my entire question or some key words: strength, insect, ant.

When the endless list of possible sites with answers pops up, I scan the URL first. Show students how to judge this information. I do not accept anything listed on a site like Wikipedia since anyone can post information. Encourage your students to look for sites with “edu” or “gov” in the link, or from trusted sources like National Geographic.

I may need to narrow down my search by adding words like “red ant” or “ant carrying weight.” Look for a minimum of three sites posting the same answer. Record these answers, together with the source.

The next step is to use the information and to retell it in your own words. Have students retell the gathered information to their partner in a fun and interesting way that’s all their own:

Ants are so strong they can carry 10 to 20 times their own weight. That is about the same as you lifting a horse over your head!

Note that I had to do a lot of research, reading, and note taking to end up with just one interesting answer to my question. Deborah Hodge says, “The most important task of a nonfiction author may be deciding what to leave out of a book. You don’t want to clutter a topic with superfluous facts or have it bog down, and end up losing the interest of the reader.”

Have fun researching and writing with your students about any topic in the curriculum!

Margriet Ruurs’ latest nonfiction book is AMAZING ANIMALS (Tundra, 2011), a book of world records for animals. She is currently working on a book about global families.

© 2012 Margriet Ruurs. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.
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