Squeezing It In
When you spend several years researching a topic, you end up with reams and reams of phenomenal facts. How are you ever supposed to cram it all in to one short book? Well, for starters, you don’t. Instead, you get choosy about what info you use, only opting for facts that support the main point of your book, but also, you get creative with ways to squeeze information in.
Let’s take a look at how writers, illustrators, and design teams use the edges to educate. By edges, I mean all of that extra information frequently found in a nonfiction book. Information in the epitext: backmatter, front matter, cover, footnotes, sidebars. captions, etc. We nonfiction nerds have awesome options that fiction folks don’t often play with. Now, an author or an illustrator is not always in charge (many of those decisions are made on the publisher’s end), but we can be strategic in our use of epitext.
For today, let’s set the front matter and backmatter aside and focus exclusively on matter placed on the main pages of the book.
I whipped out a few books from this month’s STEMTuesday list and will share features that jumped out at me and questions I immediately had. You probably might not have all these books at your disposal, but consider doing the same with a pile of books near you.
Lost in the Antarctic: The Doomed Voyage of the Endurance, by Tod Olson, page 80. Black and white; the title uses the word “fate” which gives an ominous connotation; the legend allows the map to convey a narrative. Questions: What information on the map is also included in the text? What information is left out of the text? Did the inclusion of the map allow the author to trim content from the text? What content is important to include in both the text and the epitext?
Ice Scientist: Careers in the Frozen Antarctic, by Sara L. Latta, page 15. Color illustration; the lack of color within the photo makes it stand out; minimal information provided on the map. Questions: Why does the caption repeat the key information with only minor additions? Does comprehension of the text rely on support from this image?
Polar Explorers for Kids: Historic Expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctic with 21 Activities, by Maxine Snowden, page 76. A two-color image; many geographical locations identified; no legend or title; use of bold and italics; located at the beginning of Part II of the book. Questions: Why is there no title or legend? Is this map being used differently than the others which support text on a single page? Do the marked locations match the timeline as follows and/or the content from upcoming chapters ?
The Polar Bear Scientist, Peter Lourie, page 22. Colored regions overlaying a photograph; a long caption; diagram overlays another photograph. Questions: Does the content in the extra long caption offer an aside to the main text or does it directly support the main text? If browsers stop to engage with the diagram, would they be drawn into the main text, and if so, where would they start reading? The top of that page, jumping in mid-story, or would they flip back to the beginning of the section or chapter? How can I use diagrams strategically to suck readers in? Should that be a goal? When writing the text for a caption, should I aim it at the browser or the person reading the full text? What are some strategies I can find for these different approaches?
Frozen Secrets: Antarctica Revealed, Sally M. Walker, page 20. An infographic; caption is integrated into the graphic; labels clarify the components of the graphic; seems to be connected to text which is actually an extended sidebar. Question: Did the author developed the concept for that infographic or find a related image elsewhere and use it for reference? If this infographic were not included, would readers understand the text?
Polar Explorers for Kids: Historic Expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctic with 21 Activities, by Maxine Snowden, page 19. Four separate images included; black-and-white; on a page with numbered instructions. Questions: Are these illustrations sequential? If they support the instructions, why aren’t they numbered? When writing a how-to piece, how critical is it to include text to support sequential illustrations?
Frozen Secrets: Antarctica Revealed, Sally M. Walker, pages 60-61. An extended sidebar that covers a full spread; encapsulates an entire story; because it does not fall between sections of the main text, it creates a fissure in the reading experience (one paragraph is orphaned on the following page). Questions: Are there tricks a writer can use to avoid a sidebar splitting up the main text?
Where Is Antarctica? By Sarah Fabiny, pages 88-89. An extended sidebar; expository timeline; alliteration used in the title. Questions: How frequently does the writing style and or voice of the sidebar differ from that of the main text? In a single book, are the sidebars all expository, all narrative, or a mix? Does this list provide a summary of the main text, provide information not in the main text, or provide something else?
Ice Scientist: Careers in the Frozen Antarctic, by Sara L. Latta, pages 30, 58, 71. Repeated sidebars with similar content; different word lengths; each of these includes parallel information such as definition, education required, and standard income. Questions: Are standardized sidebars more frequently used in certain series? By certain publishers? How frequently is this kind of feature used in trade publications? What impact would it have if this information were provided in chart or list form instead?
Being Intentional with Info
Analyzing the features of these informational texts helps me consider how to strategically use epitext in my manuscripts. My response as a reader to different styles, lengths, and approaches gives me insight into the impact these features have. It helps me understand their effect on reader comprehension and/or enjoyment of STEM books.
What impacts do specific types and styles of these nonfiction features have on you?
Heather L. Montgomery finds crafty ways to cram info into captions, sidebars, and footnotes. To read riotous footnotes full of fun, facts, and fecal forensics, check out her most recent middle grade STEM book Who Gives a Poop? Surprising Science from One End to the Other.
Learn more at www.HeatherLMontgomery.com