For Writers

STEM TUESDAY: Zoology – Craft & Resources

Reading Like a Writer

I am a student of nonfiction. If you hope to write nonfiction well, you have to be. When studying a book, I prefer to read it three times:

That first read is for pure enjoyment: letting the writing wash right through me and learning cool facts – did you know that venom is used to control diabetes!?!

On the second read I focus on the craft and writing techniques I can learn from.

By the third read I’m looking for specific examples of a technique that caught my eye on the second read, like how the author used sidebars to include material that is supportive but not critical to the main text.

This approach is not much different from my scientific approach to observation. When I recently came across two beetles wrestling, I first watched from above, impressed by their phenomenal horns and robotic legs; then I knelt to get a closer view and wondered why the smaller one was winning; finally, I held each one in my hand to use a magnifier. When I felt the little one’s extra spiky legs grip my finger, my questions were answered.

Want to read like a writer?

Focus on one element at a time. Reading the STEM books the first time, I noticed that many included dialog.

I wondered: Why does an author use dialog in a nonfiction book?

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To get a closer view, I focused in on Sy Montgomery’s Kakapo Rescue: Saving the World’s Strangest Parrot.


  • Chapter 4, page 21, starts with a direct quote, “Codfish Base from Lisa’s nest.”

That quote caught my eye and had me asking questions: What is “Codfish Base?” Who who is Lisa? Why does she have a nest? It’s a fantastic hook and has me diving into the chapter.

  • Chapter 5 includes dialog at the beginning as well, from page 29:

    “There’s a penguin in the freezer,” she announces.”

    “Really?” asks a volunteer. “What kind?”

I wondered: Who says that? Where is it “normal” to have a penguin in the fridge? If that doesn’t have you wanting to get to know these characters, I don’t know what will!

  • The dialog on pages 44-45 is entirely different. It is a tragic scene – the death of a kakapo chick.

I wondered: Why did the author choose to use dialog to show this particular scene? For me, the words of the characters played out the scene so well that I was reacting emotionally right along with the characters.

Compare how other authors use dialog. Just like with the beetles, my next step was to put texts from two different authors under my magnifying glass.

I asked myself: What are the most effective ways to use and frame quotes?

  • Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgFirst I read the “Wild Rhinos” section on page 8 of Emi and the Rhino Scientist which uses snippets of quotations embedded within a paragraph:

How do you describe a rhino?

You’d probably start with size. “Rhinos are really big animals,” says Terri. Only elephants are bigger land animals. Their wide bodies are propped up on short, thick legs that end in three-toed hooves. Rhinos have thick necks with giant heads and one or two horns. A rhinon may look like a slow-moving tank as it lunmbers around, but don’t be fooled. “Rhinos can move quickly,” says Terri. They can whip around in an instant and run as fast as deer. Rhinos share speed with their close relative the horse.

I noticed how Mary Kay Carson has used dialog but the paragraph is also chock full of other information. What impact do the quotes impart? Why did Carson use quotes here instead of pure expository?

  • Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgI compared Carson’s technique to other texts which make use of quotes in a similar manner. An example is the passage about bearded lizard venom on page 92 of Caitlin O’Connell’s Bridge to the Wild.

I listed ways in which O’Connell’s and Carson’s use of quotes were similar.

  • Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgI contrasted those texts with a different framing, a full scene played out using primarily dialog. An example can be found on page 55 of Pamela Turner’s Gorilla Doctors: Saving Endangered Great Apes.

I asked myself: How did the framing of the dialog change the impact? In what ways were the techniques similar? Different?

What did I learn? When an author uses direct quotes from an expert, the quote often provides information and lends authority to the text, but quotes can also work to generate curiosity, create rounded characters, add humor, etc. and, how an author frames those quotes can dramatically change their impact.

Try it Yourself!

After reading and analyzing other writers’ use of dialog, try it yourself.

  1. Audio record a conversation.
  2. Write a text using quotes from that conversation.
  3. Write a different text using the quotes in a different manner.
  4. Compare the impact of the two texts. Compare to a friend’s draft.

Many people don’t think about the craft of nonfiction, but I learn heaps when I study works of gifted writers who carefully craft their text. Happy reading! Happy Writing!

What other STEM texts have great examples of dialog techniques? Share in the comments below!

Heather L. Montgomery writes for kids who are WILD about animals. She reads and writes while high in a tree, standing in a stream, or perched on a mountaintop boulder. Visit her at:



The O.O.L.F. Files

One way to really understand STEM is to illustrate the subject of interest. Our Out of Left Field (O.O.L.F.) STEM Tuesday topic this month is science illustration. Visual science allows accurate interpretation of an object by combining knowledge of the subject, visual and tactile study of the subject, and artistic skill. Learn more about science illustration and careers, see some cool examples, and even explore a free online course at the links below.




The Bullet Journal: A Tool for Writers

Maybe you’ve got a calendar on your computer and/or phone, and maybe your desk or wall or refrigerator. You might have a bunch of lists–shopping, packing, tasks. There are slips of paper where you write story ideas scattered around your home or on your bedside table. Your desk has stacks of research notes. You may even keep an exercise log, a gratitude journal, or a meal planner.

You can have them all–in a bullet journal.

I first learned about bullet journals from a post by middle-grade author Kate Messner in early 2015. Here’s the way she describes it:

“One thing you’ll notice here is the serendipitous nature of the whole thing – story ideas live side by side with phone call notes, brainstorming charts, grocery lists, and jobs I need to do in my role as a skating club parent volunteer. . . I am a particularly task-oriented person, so this system makes me more productive and less likely to fritter away time on social media, which is great, but it also forces me to own what’s important to me each day. If it goes in the bullet journal, it matters, and I’ve found that I’m more likely to honor my exercise plans and small writing goals when I write them down here. I’ve always kept paper to-do lists, but this is different, somehow, in its permanence. Today’s list doesn’t get tossed in the trash tomorrow, and for some reason, that adds to my motivation to keep those commitments.”

I won’t go into the details of the bullet journal here. The basic premise is described on the originator’s website, but that’s just a jumping-off point. The great thing about a bullet journal is that it can be whatever you want it to be. Every BuJo is unique. You can even change the way you use it from day to day, week to week, or month to month.

This one is very fancy, and not mine. (

Some people use separate journals for work and home and writing. As a freelancer, I have to organize one or more freelance gigs, my personal life, family obligations, and my Zumba teaching along with my creative writing. These tasks flow into each other during a given day.  I do keep a separate journal for conferences, so that all those notes are together.

I use a simple composition book with a 4 square per inch grid. No need for fancy, expensive books, unless you’re into that kind of thing.  I write the dates on the cover, also noting on the cover if this journal contains important things that I might look for later, like tax information or research notes you took on a visit to a museum.

These are mine. I attended a lot of meetings about college and financial aid between May and September 2016.

Some people purchase a journal with numbered pages or number the pages themselves, then list those page numbers in an index. I don’t bother; I color the edges to help me find things, like this.  I use paper clips instead of fancy ribbons to make it easy to flip to today’s page. There are lots of other ways to keep track of pages.

Each daily page in my own BuJo includes the date, appointments, and Zumba classes I’m teaching right at the top. If I have an upcoming deadline, I’ll note how many days are left here.

At the top right, I list who will be home for dinner (it gets complicated) and what will be on the table. Down the right side I list people I need to contact by phone or email. Bottom right is errands.  I used to put exercise below the dinner plan, but since I’ve been teaching Zumba, there isn’t really a lot of need to log that.

The main part of the page I divide into sections based on the writing projects I’m working on (freelance assignments, blog posts, manuscripts, talks, etc.), Zumba tasks, and home stuff.

This one is very neat. Also not mine. (PenPaperSoul Instagram)


Sure, I can do most of this on a computer or smartphone, but writing stuff down has some cognitive, creative and meditative advantages, some of which are listed here and here. I like to sit with my journal just before bed and go over what I need to get done tomorrow. Sort of like downloading my brain onto paper so those thoughts won’t be floating around keeping me awake.

The BuJo can be as basic or complicated as you want. There are Facebook groups for those that want to keep it simple and for those that take it to the extreme, with art, calligraphy, stickers, stencils, and washi tape

There is also a Facebook group for writers, who have lately been sharing how they use their BuJos for NaNoWriMo. Bullet journals are a natural for writers, many of whom already keep journals.

In addition to keeping track of daily tasks, there are some writing-specific spreads you can add to your BuJo. You can add inspiration, motivation and organization. You can track word counts and map productivity. You can list books you want to read and check them off as you finish them, perhaps adding notes or reviews or ratings. You can set short-term and long-term goals. You can keep track of submissions (and rejections). You can build worlds and diagram plots. You can list writing prompts and do a daily free-write. You can brainstorm titles and character names. You can plan revisions and track edits.

This is not my book list, although I have read some of these books. (currently studying Tumblr)

Megan Rutell has compiled lists you can use to “supercharge” your writing and offers some great tips and hacks.  Several writers have written about the ways they use bullet journals in their writing, including Laura Shovan, Amanda Hackwith, Victoria Fry, Lyndsay Knowles, and Claire Bradshaw.

Here is a spread used by Kara Benz to prepare for NaNoWriMo.

If you are looking for videos of writers giving tours of their bullet journals, you can start here and here and here and here. Keep looking until  you find what you think can work for you.

There are more ideas than I can list here, but I encourage you to give it a try. Start simple. Explore the ways other writers have used their BuJos. Add features that you think might help you. Feel free to delete features that aren’t as useful as you thought they’d be.

Do you use a bullet journal? Do you have any special spreads, trackers, or techniques that you find especially useful? Share in the comments.

My Kids Made Me a Writer


My four-year-old daughter’s voice was a whisper in the dark. I sat quietly on a chair next to her bed, vigil against monsters and other worries.

“Mommy,” she repeated, with some urgency. “I take care of unicorns.”

Of all of my children–indeed, of all children I’ve ever met–she is the one of whom I could believe that to be true. She cares fiercely. When she walks into room, she spots the older person in pain, the lonely child, the uncertain non-English speaker. She goes to that person without hesitation, and offers a blanket, a stuffed animal, a small hand on the shoulder. She also lives a fanciful life. There is no snark in her world. Her room is pink, and so are her sunglasses.

If there are unicorns, I know she will find them, and protect them.

When I tell people I am a writer, as well as a lawyer and mom, they express amazement. “Three kids?” they ask. “How do you find time?” Advice on writing while parenting tends to be dire. You’ll need to squeeze in writing during naptime, or while sitting in the carpool lane. Don’t have more than one child. Motherhood will exact a heavy toll on your creativity and mental energy.

The message is clear that motherhood is a hindrance to a writing career. I cannot deny that the challenges are real. My own days more closely resemble a seesaw than a balance beam. But today, I want to speak not of the burden, but of the gift.

The reality for me is that if I were not a mother, I would not be a writer. My first book grew out of that late night conversation with my daughter. The book I am writing now sprouted from my realization in mother/daughter book club that all girls want to talk about in fourth grade is friendship. It turns out I have a lot of thoughts on friendship and fourth grade, too.

I am inspired by them all the time—the things that frighten them, fascinate them, make them laugh. I eavesdrop shamelessly. I steal their vocabulary and syntax.

In addition to inspiring me, my children give me the will to write. I strive for clarity and honesty because I want to show them a truth about the world. My commitment to my kids keeps me going through the long nights of toiling away. I want to create something worthy of them.

Their presence in my life is also a good salve for the slings and arrows of writing. This is not an easy business, my friends. Knowing that I have these three young ones keeps me grounded, and a snuggle on the couch cures most ills.

I would imagine many of you who write for kids do it for the same reasons. As middle grade writers, our audience is not our peers, but rather, children—our own, or those in our lives, those in the world. And aren’t we lucky?

Kate Hillyer lives, writes, and mothers in Washington, D.C. She blogs here and at The Winged Pen. You can also find her at, on Twitter as @SuperKate, and on her book blog, Kid Book List.