STEM Tuesday — Animal Perceptions– Writing Tips & Resources

 

Choose Your Own Writing Adventure

Did you ever read a Choose Your Own Adventure® book? As a kid I devoured those. You would read a few paragraphs and then when there’s a plot point—when a normal book would have the main character make the decision (and learn the consequences)—in these books, you, the reader get to choose.

Choose Your Own Adventure stack of books

It might look like this:

  • If you charge down the tunnel, straight into the dragon’s lair, turn to page 23.
  • If you sneak around the mountain, hoping to slip in through a backdoor, turn to page 42.

What if we could see writing like that? What if we could help students see writing like that? What if we could apply this to the challenge of writing to convey information?

One of my greatest struggles is structure. Finding just the right approach to convey information. I know I’m not the only writer (young or old) who suffers from that kind of paralysis. A great way for me to break into writing is to toy with different approaches, but it can be hard to get started, so I’ve started to play the “Choose My Own Writing Adventure” sort of game.

Play the Game

Let’s take chapter 2 of Rebecca Hirsch’s Sensational Senses: Amazing Ways Animals Perceive the World.

The first section begins:

Two eyeballs swivel on stalks atop the head of a mantis shrimp. Zip! Zoop! The eyes move up, down, left, and right as the critter scuttles across the coral reef. He is keeping watch for enemies and looking for a place to hide.”

Upon reading the first sentence, I am immediately connecting to this writing. That “Zip! Zoop!” provides a sensory experience that brings me into a scene. The action of the eyes and the verb “scuttles” has me picturing this as a movie playing in my mind. The “He is keeping watch” has me connecting with and feeling for a character. This is narrative writing!

But, in the next section, entitled “Eye Spy,” the writing shifts.

“Mantis shrimps, or stomatopods (stoh-MA-tah-pawds) are relative of crabs, lobsters, and shrimp. These tiny superheroes have the most advanced eyeballs on the planet.”

Wait. That’s all expository—information intended to explain. It’s still drawing me in. The fact about mantis shrimp relatives connects them to animals I am more familiar with, thus making the subject relatable. Even if the spread had not included intriguing photographs, I’d be developing a crabby kind of image in my mind—a hard shell, beady eyes and lots of legs. The superheroes analogy has my mind imaging all kinds of fun. The “most advanced eyeballs on the planet” has me experiencing a sense of awe for these creatures.

But it is the juxtaposition of these two kinds of writing, so drastically different, that has me re-reading to learn more about writing craft. Why did the author decide to set up the chapter this way? What advantages do each of these approaches have? If I were the writer and playing the “Choose My Own Writing Adventure” game, what could my other options for these passages be?

Let’s play that game. What if the book began with the same information but that first section was written as expository text? Could I do that? Could you do that? Pull out a piece of paper (or a fresh file) and try it before you read on.

Adventurous Options

When facing this challenge myself, the first thing that occurs to me is that I’d switch the point of view to third person. But, after pondering a moment, I realize that’s not the only option:

  • If you choose to write in third person, you’ve picked a classic approach. Keep writing!
  • If you choose to write in first person—that can be done in expository, right—you’re doing something fresh and exciting!

But also, because I am now writing it as  expository, I feel the urge to begin that first paragraph by naming the animal, i.e.  “A mantis shrimp…” But there are other options, right?

  • If you start with “A mantis shrimp…” plow forward and see where it takes you.
  • If you start with “The enemies of…” be confident because you started with a hook.
  • If you start with “The eyeballs…” consider how that sets up the content.

Isn’t this fun? After you’ve played with the first section for a while, flip this idea and try going the opposite direction. Take the expository “Eye Spy” section and use that content to craft a narrative. At every junction, make yourself aware of the options you are choosing by listing out one or more other options.

Writing is an adventure! Let’s stop pretending it must be boring. Let’s use other people’s writing as examples, but not as a rule book. Let’s be writing rebels!


Heather L. Montgomery likes to take her chances. Adventurous research has led her to publication of 18 books, including: What’s in Your Pocket? Collecting Nature’s Treasures, Something Rotten: A Fresh Look at Roadkill, and Sick! The Twists and Turns behind Animal Germs. When she is not teaching a library full of students or interviewing a scientist, you might find her writing in an outlandish spot. Where will  you join her:

  • If you’re up for a stream stroll, pull on your water shoes and catch some critters with her.
  • If you’re into tree climbing, whip out your journal and scribble from the canopy.
  • If you’re brave enough for dissection, grab your gloves and goggles.

Learn more at www.HeatherLMontgomer.com .

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