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Wednesday, May 28, 2014


Mentor Texts: proceed with confidence

Recently, an editor from Red Line invited me to write a book for a new 9th grade series on ancient cultures. As a former archaeological illustrator with a son in 9th grade and degrees in history and anthropology, I jumped on the opportunity, chose a culture from their list, and read their author spec sheet.

As I read about what they wanted, I made a list of questions.

  • What do they mean by knowledgeable but approachable?
  • Just how chatty is friendly?
  • Do they want the fact sets in list format or a paragraph?

Yes, I could ask my editor the last question, but getting an answer on the first two would be tricky because they’re subjective.

It would be much easier if I could see an example, but I couldn’t look up other books in the series. Mine is going to be one of the first books completed.

Instead, I e-mailed my editor and asked for a mentor text. He responded with not one but two books, delivered as PDFs.

If you’ve never heard the term before, a mentor text is a text that you use to keep you inspired and on track. Teachers use them in the classroom to teach their students various aspects of writing such as how to write dialogue, the part of a three act structure or how to include detail.

A mentor text doesn’t have to be identical to what you are writing. The book I just wrote was on the Classic Maya. The mentor texts were part of a country series, on the modern nations of India and Iran.

I used these books to get a feel for the writing style they wanted – friendly but not chatty, not quite peer to peer but definitely not adult to child. I was also able to see just how tangential a sidebar could be. I saw that although they wanted a respectful approach, that didn’t mean hiding the negatives which meant I wouldn’t have any problems including human sacrifice on the chapter about religion.

Writing for a publisher that is new to you can be intimidating. Whether you are writing on assignment or planning to submit something cold, give yourself additional confidence by referring to a mentor text. It will help you shape your writing to meet their expectations.


Learn more about Sue's work on her blog, One Writer's Journey.

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