Nonfiction Mistakes I’ve Made – And Ways to Avoid Them

This week The Tollbooth welcomes guest blogger, Nina Kidd. A Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA grad, Nina has mined her passion for the outdoors by writing MG non-fiction about wildlife corridors helping cougars in the Santa Monica mountains.


As Nina says, my first mistake was ignoring nonfiction.

“Everyone” in grad school was writing fiction. As an illustrator, my favorite projects were realistic plants, animals, landscapes. Duh! I had spent years writing and illustrating nonfiction, and hadn’t even noticed. Don’t be me.

What articles do you hunt on the web? what was your favorite reading/viewing as a child? What are your guilty reading indulgences now? Reading passion=writing passion.


My second mistake was researching too long. You know you’re a nonfiction freak if that is among your problems. Two strategies helped me tame the research addiction:

Outlining. Right away. It’s freeing to cut away all the non-story to focus on that one narrative and central theme. Revise the outline, play with it, focus it. The book proposal must have one, so I feel fine lavishing time and care on the outline. And, yes, outlines are supposed to evolve.

Begin to write –soon—before the research is done. Alexis O’Neill, who writes fiction as well as nonfiction, reminded me recently, if  a fact or date comes along that needs looking up, Don’t! Leave a space for it (____) and keep writing. Getting a draft down helps focus the themes and sharpen the outline. Of course, that’s where we’re all heading anyway: to a draft

Don’t forget fiction. Structurally, fiction and nonfiction share the goal of telling a good story. How?

Sid Fleischman reminded us all to “write in scenes.” The narrative nonfiction that editors prize is a story, basically a series of scenes and transitions. It’s easy to let transitions take over in nonfiction, especially if there is no live person to tell the story. But without fabricating anything we can still create a scene with action, tension and emotion. I’ll bet you that when people read your work, their favorite parts will be the scenes.


Sensory details. Use the magic of specific sights, sounds, skin sensations. Jennifer Armstrong’s Orbis Pictus Award-winner, Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World will dazzle you and make you shiver as you sail with Ernest Shackleton’s crew into the Antarctic ice. Factoid: scientists say that the name or suggestion of a familiar smell is the most vivid and memory-evoking sense for a reader. That’s probably why cookbooks are so popular. Of course kids love the stinky ones too.

Narrative arc. This is where you can really hold the nonfiction reader, with tension building to a climax. Something as basic as cliffhanger chapter endings can work in nonfiction to lure the reader into reading your true tale cover to cover rather than just researching for the paper the teacher has required.

Tone can make even a scary-complicated subject more accessible. Do you see humor in nature? Are the characters in your story playful, prayerful? How about wonder? Is your topic lushly visual? Is there music in the spheres? Maybe, you’ll get to quote a wildlife biologist like the one I’ve been researching, who burst out that a life of discovery is “cool,” that climbing around outdoors is “a gas.” You can pass that unexpected grin along.

I Failed at all-important Filing. But if you are a fellow filophobe, the following may offer encouragement.

Make and label the files before generating the contents, for virtual as well as physical files. Following your outline, item by item, is a good way to arrange your files. For those of us who never liked putting the toys away, having a place pre-planned to put it encourages filing the work with the comforting promise you will find it again when needed.


Color code. When I’m working on more than one project, it helps to know that all the folders tabbed with a green hiliter go in Drawer #2. Alphabetize files by bolded keyword if necessary.

Photos: It helps to name them starting with date taken (or received). You can sort/retrieve “2012_11_28 Sweet Gum Red”  by year, month and day, species name, and/or color. This is a photo tip from bird photographer Doug Wechsler, director of VIREO, which has the world’s most comprehensive collection of bird photos.

Footnote as you go. It’s a temptation to leave it for later, but Kerry Madden (author of fiction, and nonfiction) shared that mistake, which she made when writing her 2009 biography of  Harper Lee. At the end, Kerry confessed, she sat with her editor for hours looking for the source notes she needed.

Good Feedback: One mistake I didn’t make was leaving my adored fiction critiquers when I was fortunate enough to find a wonderful nonfiction critique group. The two are complementary, with a nice overlap, if you can do it.

Happy (nonfiction) Writing!

Thanks, Nina!

Nina’s article “The Cougar Connection: Mountain Lions Lead the Way to Conservation Solutions” will be posted on the website of The Mountain Lion Foundation in the next few weeks. Currently, she is researching and writing two nonfiction books for middle grades. One tells the story of scientists working to save mountain lions struggling to survive in suburban Southern California, the other is a biography of Dr. Paul Beier, an American wildlife ecologist known internationally for his work on wildlife corridors, a conservation strategy to help humans and wild communities thrive side by side.

7 thoughts on “Nonfiction Mistakes I’ve Made – And Ways to Avoid Them”

  1. Nina Kidd says:

    Thanks tollboothers!
    Now what I have to do is make sure I follow this advice. N.

  2. Carol says:

    This is a wonderful article. I see your personality all through it!
    I can’t wait to read your non-fiction.

  3. Nancy Bo Flood says:

    Terrific article – clear, concise with many a good story – and very helpful. Congratulations and thank you, Nancy Bo Flood PS Did you mention “persistence?” How many revisions to get it exactly right!

    1. Nina Kidd says:

      Persistence, yes, coming from VCFA I figured it’s a given. But in that line, going to plan B, letting the subject inform the approach and find its voice — different than fiction in that there is a message that may find voice as an essay, article, conversation, epistolary or drama, to name a few. And all from the same basic material. Good call, Nancy!

  4. Julie Dillemuth says:

    Great article! I really want to take a stab at a nonfiction picture book but there’s something I find so intimidating about it. You make several points that inspire me to get back at it, and make it seem do-able. I’ll bookmark this post and come back to it again when I get stuck!

  5. Tina Nichols Coury says:

    What great advice. With Common Core all the rage now it is so important to get the facts straight. Thank you for your advice Nina.
    Tina Nichols Coury
    Hanging Off Jefferson,s Nose. Growing Up On Mount Rushmore.
    Dial Books for Young Readers.

    1. Nina Kidd says:

      Thanks, Tina!
      Much success with your Mount Rushmore book!

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