How To Write Balanced Nonfiction

Laying Story and Information

As you follow an expert or main character on his travels and discoveries, you’re captivated by the narrative and the factual information simultaneously. But how do you achieve the right balance of telling the story while also capturing the details of the place and the character? For me, it’s often a matter of layering, adding and subtracting a little paint through the various drafts.

I try to convey to writing students that from the moment they come up with an idea, a thesis, a passionate quest of their own, to the moment the essay is handed in, absolutely nothing is set in stone. Anything can be changed at any moment. As you write, the story is organic. You learn what it is you want to say, and how you might add bits and pieces here and there in order to fortify your main topic.

Young writers often hang on too dearly to their early drafts that might not be going in a productive and effective direction.

I call this layering because it’s similar to what a painter might add to his canvas as he paints day after day. As the light shifts and colors change, artistic decisions are made, always working toward one goal — making the best narrative possible.

A little while back, I was working on a book about an Arctic whale scientist who works with the Inupiaq Eskimos on the North Slope of Alaska. I had done a pretty good job capturing the setting, that wild sea ice where the Inupiat bring in the whales in the spring. And I think I’d done a pretty good job, too, of creating a distinct character in the subject of my profile, Craig George, son of children’s author Jean Craighead George. But on one of my early drafts, my editor at Houghton Mifflin pointed out that since this book was in the Scientist in the Field Series, I might need to add a little more science.

I looked over the draft and suddenly saw that she was right. I was heavy on character, on cultural setting, on the Arctic beauty, and rather light on the actual science that Craig conducted when he went out on the ice with the People of the Whale, as they call themselves, in order to collect samples from whales that the Eskimos were hunting. I also needed to weave this science into the text throughout, and not deposit it as a few isolated chunks.

I went back to work and, with those comments in mind, came up with some nice touches that strengthened the whole book, I think. I hope. In fact, I had to reorder large sections in order to make this happen. I couldn’t be afraid to throw things to the wind and start afresh. Young writers often hang on too dearly to their early drafts that might not be going in a productive and effective direction.

In this life, we’re all beginners and we have to approach each adventure, each story, each opportunity, with fresh eyes and fresh energy.

Once a student in a fifth-grade class has written a first draft, for instance, a teacher might help the writer see that perhaps the historical underpinnings aren’t strong enough to make a forceful argument. So the teacher can encourage such a writer at such a moment to go back and layer in the relevant history.

Or perhaps in another essay by a different student, the element of a personal point of view is not personal enough. So the teacher helps the writer stop to think deeply about how the student writer feels about the subject and then layers in this feeling as a theme throughout the book.

Or maybe a student sees all nonfiction as a simple sequence of events, a sort of boring laundry list of reportable facts and figures that lead nowhere — this student really and truly needs to work on the layering, of nuance, of personal commitment.

“No two writers need to work on the exact same elements of the craft.” — Dave Somoza

By layering I do not mean “coating.” I’m talking more about the layers in a lasagna, built-in stuff, without which there is no food, no essay. I’m talking about the hints of color spread throughout the book that might be added after a first or second draft and that now contribute to the overall beauty of the tapestry, the silver blue theme. I’ve mentioned adding more science. But it could be layers of “setting,” or “character,” or deeper thematic threads that fortify a thesis. And it might be that a writer has only one character in her essay, a poorly drawn character who needs fleshing out, or perhaps other characters who need to be introduced so that we see many points of view. How the layering process is applied depends on the needs of the narrative.

I often ask my friend and fellow traveler, 5th-grade teacher Dave Somoza, how he teaches the craft of writing to his students. Dave told me that “a teacher’s job, when they embark on putting the Adventure Essay together after all the pre-writing and the research is done, is one of knowing which kid needs which kind of layering and how much. And then staying on top of the process of layering. Tuning in on the student and his/her essay is the hard work of teaching writing but it is essential because no two writers need to work on the exact same elements of the craft.”

The exciting thing for Dave is that when a teacher works with a ten- or an eleven-year-old writer, asking questions like Is this part here missing anything, or Since your main idea is X don’t you think we need to highlight X with a little more Y?….asking these kinds of technical questions is really about bending the young writer’s mind, making him or her reach out for something to layer into their essay to make it stronger, more believable — a more forceful argument.

Then again, this kind of examination isn’t limited to teachers or young writers. In this life, we’re all beginners and we have to approach each adventure, each story, each opportunity, with fresh eyes and fresh energy. It is the never-ending task of any writer to make an endless array of choices, choices that sometimes demand the courage needed to start anew. The teacher teaches by asking effective questions but for those of us without a teacher or mentor, the duty falls on our own shoulders to inspect, to distill, to strengthen, and, above all, to write.


If you liked this piece, I spent the last few years weaving story and information into my upcoming book on the incredible Norwegian explorer, Fridtjof Nansen. Read the excerpt and let me know what you think!


Originally published at adventurebiographies.com on November 29, 2018.