Monday, May 25, 2015

Writing Nonfiction for a Purpose

Outside of school, people don’t sit down to write a paragraph or write “at least two sentences” or write an essay that rehashes what everybody already knows.  Outside of school, people write for a purpose. And that purpose shapes what they say and how they say it.

Except in school. Here the painful reality is that children are asked to write paragraphs, write at least two sentences, and write formula-driven “essays.” How do I know? I see it when I visit schools, and I especially see it in the lesson plans I receive from my undergraduate students, who—in addition to taking a course with me—are also student teaching. 

The problem that I have with all this is that children are being given the wrong information about the nature of writing. Real writing is not a formula-driven exercise. Real writing has a real purpose. This purpose can be to inform, to raise questions, to entertain, to describe, to persuade, to share opinions, and so on. And real writing doesn’t come from a recipe.

CCSS never demanded that children should only write nonfiction essays, arguments, and opinion papers; it simply said that these types of writing should be included in the curriculum. CCSS also never demanded that we should teach formula-driven approaches to writing either. This approach comes from educators frantically trying to get children to write expository text without at the same time nurturing their desire to write for real reasons. And we all know the reasons for this frantic push—testing and its consequences.

Instead, I believe we need to work with children to investigate the reasons we write. One promising approach is to consider the communication triangle.  To keep their writing vibrant, writers consider not only the subject they are writing about, but also how to communicate it to a specific reader or readers. Writers think about what they want to say and how they want to say it. Here’s the communication triangle that shows this relationship:

Thinking about writing as a message designed to communicate to an audience has a range of implications. First, when reading nonfiction, we can consider questions like these:
·      Who is telling me this?
·      What is the writer telling me?
·      Why is the writer telling me this?
·      How does the writer’s purpose influence the selection of words and information? How does this purpose influence the creation and/or selection of illustrations?

A writer’s purpose can be seen throughout a book. Search for clues in the opening paragraph, the dynamics between the illustrations and the writing, the information the writer selected and shared, and the author’s note. In simple terms, ask, Why are you telling me this? How are you telling me this?

I just finished reading Tricky Vic: The Impossibly True Story of the Man Who Sold the Eiffel Tower, a picture book biography by Greg Pizzoli. This is a very entertaining and informative book about a bad guy, a con man, who gets punished in the end. Here are some clues I found about the author’s purpose:

·      Lead: “In 1890, the man who would one day be known by forty-five different aliases was born to the Miller family” (p. 1). Clearly, the author wants me to know that Tricky Vic is not your regular, upstanding citizen.
·      Dynamics Between Illustrations and Writing: On page 2, the words tell me that Tricky Vic left home to become an artist, but the illustrations show his angry parents calling him “a con artist!” Once again, I see he’s a bad guy, and I think the author wants me to know this. But the author also wants me to see the humor in it, too.
·      Vocabulary: The author explains words about being a con artist. For example, he explains that a “mark” is the planned victim of a scam. A sampling of additional vocabulary includes prohibition, Al “Scarface” Capone, Romanian Money Box, counterfeiting, and Alcatraz. He is giving me the “stuff” I need to talk about con artists.
·      The Information Selected: Throughout the book, the author teaches me information about scams and the words to talk about them. He also follows the career of Tricky Vic, but only in terms of his scams.
·      The Author’s Note: The author confesses to doing a little bit of “creating his own truth,” just the way Tricky Vic did. He also updates us on current con artists flourishing today in Paris and advises us to “stay sharp.”

I was informed and entertained by this book. While I can’t look into the author’s head to read his mind, I think this was his intention. So I want to end with this question: Are we giving children the chance to write so that they, too, can inform and entertain? 


  1. As an author of children's nonfiction, you are absolutely spot on, Myra. I tell children that I write for Vicki Wolf, age 11. I figure if she likes what I write, they'll like it. This is true of most top children's book authors--they don't focus test their writing, they write for the child they were. Second, the material shapes the format. When I write a hands-on activity I must give a reader motivation to try something, I must give very clear directions, and then I must tie the outcomes of the activity to the initial motivation. There are many activity books that just present the activity gratuitously with no reason to try it and no really good explanation of results. Although it seems as if I have a formula for this format, it is not hard and fast. I deviate often with asides to make the material as interesting as possible. Also, I strive to say what I have to say as economically as possible. I am terrified of boring the reader.

  2. At a conference last October, children's NF author Peggy Thomas spoke about something similar. For her book FARMER GEORGE PLANTS A NATION, she used specific words, vivid verbs and strong adjectives to create an image system for agriculture. This image system helped Peggy illustrate to readers her purpose for writing the book... revealing George Washington's deep interest in cultivation and how this was linked to growing a new nation.

  3. Thank you for this connection. It's this awareness of how writers use language purposefully that I think is important to communicate to children. I will go back and look at FARMER GEORGE PLANTS A NATION again.