What Makes Good Nonfiction?

Over the years, I’ve been asked many times what I look for when I assess nonfiction writing for the TFCB imprint. My answer is pretty much always the same. Here’s my take on what makes good–and likely-to-be-published–nonfiction writing:

–it grabs my attention with its personality and lively tone. Any piece of writing, whether fiction or nonfiction, must meet this challenge–and it’s a hard one to nail down. How do you achieve these qualities? In general, good writers come to these skills by reading other good writers. A lot of them. And by practice and learning from mistakes.

–it is well researched. Many of the nonfiction writers I work with tell me the research is the fun part. They love digging around for details in a wide range of print materials and online. They love traveling to historic sites to get the feel of their subject or visiting archives at libraries and historical societies for documents that can shed light on their topic. Many of these writers are also good at getting interviews, and they love the relationship piece that research often entails.

–it is authoritative. I call this out separately from the research piece to point out the importance of casting a wide net in the research stage of a project. An authoritative voice comes from reading many books on a subject; from checking out multiple online sources; from coordinating research with various archives; and from fact checking and cross checking your information, more than once. And don’t forget to source your research while you’re doing it. It’s so much easier than trying to re-create it later on.

–it speaks to the publisher’s audience. I often see projects derailing because they’re not being submitted to an appropriate publisher. If an author wants to write romance novels for adults, make sure to approach publishing houses that target this audience. If you’re interested in poetry, make sure to research publishers of poetry. Children’s nonfiction? Research these publishers and decide whether you prefer to write for a school-library audience (driven by series publishing and curriculum needs) or for a trade audience (driven more by single titles and high-interest topics).

Here is a short list of links to some resources that offer good information about trends in the world of children’s publishing (both fiction and nonfiction), about writers’ groups and their offerings, and about who’s actually out there publishing for children.
Children’s Writer Newsletter
Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators
Literary Market Place

Check back next week for more from TFCB.