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?
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?
- First 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?
- I 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.
- I 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.
- Audio record a conversation.
- Write a text using quotes from that conversation.
- Write a different text using the quotes in a different manner.
- 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: www.HeatherLMontgomery.com
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.