Nonfiction Isn’t Creative: Fact or Fiction?

Thursday, October 03, 2013
When new writers find out that I write primarily nonfiction, many of them sigh.  “I understand that you can make money at it, but I want to be creative.” 
Let me clue you in on a secret – nonfiction, especially nonfiction for children, is creative and that creativity starts with the idea. Take one idea that has kid appeal.  Add it to another idea with kid appeal, stir the two together and you get a brand new idea that is also . . . (can you guess?) . . .  creative.
That’s what Kelly Milner Halls did when she wrote Dinosaur Mummies. Dinosaurs had been done.  The same with mummies, but dinosaur mummies?  Not only did the topic have instant kid appeal, it was something creative no one else had touched.
Another creative approach is to let kids in on a secret.  “The other adults lied to you but I’m here to tell you the truth.  They don’t think you can handle it but I know better.” That’s the subtext for David Harrison’s Pirates. He makes it plain that the life of a pirate was tough and it was often short.  Not only did David come up with a topic that is original for its honest approach, he also handled it in a creative way.  This isn’t your standard prose nonfiction.  The story is told through poems.
Picture books are written to be read aloud and the very best authors use their creativity to make their book a fun read aloud for both the reader and the listener.  Some writers use rhyme (see Lisa Wheeler’s Mammoths on the Move). Donna Bateman takes rhyme and notches it up in Out on the Prairie.  How? She patterns her text after “Over in the Meadow” while still imparting solid information about the flora and fauna of the tall grass prairie.
You don’t have to write picture book nonfiction to use a creative approach.  In his novel-length book, Bomb: The Race to Build – and Steal – the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon, author Steve Sheinkin tells readers about the early atomic arms race.  The topic is worthy of James Bond and the execution is no less gripping than a spy novel.  He uses narrative to build suspenseful scenes that pull the reader in to this high-stakes adventure.
Any of these topics could have been written up in a ho hum encyclopedia style which would be sure to lose readers if it ever made it out of the slush pile.  Instead, these authors used their creativity to the max.
Ask yourself.  Are you creative enough to write for today’s nonfiction market?

Sue Bradford Edwards is teaching Writing Nonfiction for Children and Young Adults in the WOW! Classroom this October and November.  


Briane said...

I think in many ways it might be HARDER to be creative about nonfiction, because of the perception it has and because of the tendency to be didactic. But you're right -- you can be creative and the best nonfiction writers are.

I get a lot of nonfiction audiobooks for when I drive. A good writer can take even the seemingly-boring-est topic and turn it into something great. I read (listened to) "Just My Type," an exploration of fonts, and it was fascinating. And one of my favorite books ever was "Longitude," the true story of the man who invented the marine chronometer. Doesn't SOUND fascinating, but it is.

If you have kids, you know that something like 99% of the 'nonfiction' books for them are terrible -- so I appreciate the ones that are good.

Marcia Peterson said...

You make it sound really interesting! We need more writers to provide great non fic for our kids.

Unknown said...

I write and read primarily nonfiction and it never occurred to me that it was boring or academic sounding. Check out books by Jon Krakauer or Tracy Kidder-- those will alter your thinking about nonfiction very quickly.

It's funny, but I think of writing nonfiction like art. A still life painting may be of something actual, but it's seen through the artist's eyes and heart.

Love this post; I feel like a cheerleader.

Margo Dill said...

I just picked up a nonfiction book for adults--Astronaut Wives' Club (or something like that) and I dove right in.

Do you think it's the voice? I do sometimes. I used to use nonfiction texts in elementary school to teach voice--I'd read them one that sounds like an encyclopedia on one topic. ANd then find one with voice on the same topic, and right away, they understood voice.

These are great examples.

And my stepson--age 12--prefers nonfiction.

Anonymous said...

I do think that the best nonfiction has a strong voice and that is a large part of what pulls us in.

Thank you for the recommendations. I'm sure the local library was getting bored. I only have about a dozen things checked out.

Nonfiction audio books are a must. I knit and you'd be amazed how often I have to say "let me finish this track . . . this row." I get a lot of "reading" done this way.


Christina said...

Great post! I write non-fiction and am learning just how creative it has to be to get a nibble from my readers. It is far more creative than it is credited with being. Thanks for putting it out there!

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