When I was doing lots and lots of author visits, many schools were focusing professional development — and writing instruction — on Six Traits: Voice, Ideas, Presentation, Conventions, Organization, Word Choice, and Sentence Fluency. I liked to show ways that I, a professional writer, also dance and wrestle with those traits. In particular, I liked to focus on ideas and details.
What makes a good detail? (It’s unexpected and vivid and gripping.) How do I create good details in my writing? (Use the five senses; think visually; magnify moments.) Where do I start? (Observation, memories, research.)
As someone who has been a classroom teacher of elementary, high school, college, and master’s degree students, I sometimes point out to fellow educators that we may convey the notion that fiction writing must be dramatic and compelling but nonfiction writing can be boring. I’ve used a picture book that my brother and I wrote about animals—Water Hole Waiting (Greenwillow Books) — to show the power of details in nonfiction: how interesting verbs and metaphors, for example, can pull readers into paying attention to real things. (After all, School Library Journal called our book “a gem for writing teachers.”)
What I didn’t grapple with as much in those writing workshops and presentations was the trait of organization. But it can be a doozy! Once we’ve captured terrific details, we still have to be stitch them together in pleasing ways. We can start by looking at various organizational schemes that professional writers have found. (Picture books are particularly useful for this hunt, since they don’t have a myriad of threads to poke through.)
Fiction writers use plot insights to give scenes shape. Some nonfiction books now borrow common fiction organizing techniques — for example, patterns of three. Nonfiction picture book biographies were once usually organized birth-to-death. Some still are. But a more common pattern now is what one of my VCFA student essays called “seed-to-tree”: the book opens with a scene from the person’s life that shows a passion or skill or dream that (in spite of adversity in the middle of the book) ends in some kind of triumphant discovery or accomplishment on the last page or pages.
But a particularly hard challenge for organization is writing about ideas.
Of course, there are teacher tools. If you do a search for “graphic organizers for writing,” you know what I mean. But those tools can also get in the way. When I was teaching writing to college students, I had to grapple with an over-reliance on the five-paragraph essay.
The truth is this: writers struggle. My brother and I got to exasperation before we came up with the morning-to-night organization of Water Hole Waiting. And let me share my bumbling with my newest nonfiction picture book, What Do They Do With All That Poo? (Beach Lane/Simon & Schuster)
I knew I had a good idea when it popped up as some fellow authors and I were laughing and complaining with each other. (Sometimes you don’t even know that you’re brainstorming.) I immediately thought of some details. From my childhood and my work on Water Hole Waiting, I already knew about hippos creating dung showers with their flipping, flapping tails. I already knew that hyena’s scat was white. I knew about worms in compost in my backyard habitat and that the Oregon zoo sometimes gave away Zoo Doo, made from herbivore manure to help gardeners enrich their soil. But a writer can’t give in to the temptation to organize details this way: “and then…and then…and then…” How to craft a beginning, middle, and end?
Ack! I was stuck!
One day, as I was wandering around my yard, it occurred to me that my young reader might not even know to connect poo-ing with chewing. Although I had no plans for a rhyming text, this is what gradually took shape:
Welcome to the zoo and the peaceful sound of chewing.
Everybody eats, all around the zoo.
Different mouths. Different teeth. Welcome to the view.
Munch munch the herbivores eat fruit and leaves and trees.
Crunch crunch the carnivores devour meat with glee.
Oh, oh the omnivores nibble spiders and seeds.
Welcome to the zoo with the funny sounds of poo-ing.
I kept playing and working. Here’s a later version:
At zoo after zoo
the animals chew
Lots and lots and lots of poo
in many shapes and sizes.
Some poo at the zoo is dull and brown.
But some of it surprises.
Here is the version that made it into print:
At zoo after zoo, the animals chew. And then…
Sidebar: Poo is made of mostly water but also bacteria and bits of undigested food. Animal poo goes by a lot of different names, including manure, scat, droppings, dung, castings, and guano.
Having fallen in love with my rhyming beginning, my editor suggested I continue the rhyme. Thus…
Hyenas crunch of lots of bones.
That’s why their poop is white.
Bat poop has undigested bugs.
Bats do their poo at night.
(Fond as I was of that last line, it turned out to be inaccurate and had to be revised.)
The question that sparked the book—So what do zoos do with all of that poo? — didn’t show up until the middle. I kept struggling. When we were celebrating my daughter’s graduation from her PhD program, I was wandering around her house asking, “What rhymes with biogas?” In the end, I simplified, relying on sidebars and illustrations to provide more information. The ending came as I was laughing and talking about zoo visits with one of my VCFA picture book students.
Not long after my book was published, I spent a week in a Wisconsin school, including doing workshops with fifth graders about their own nonfiction writing. I shared a book I helped Noh, my fifth-grade grandson, write for the Ready Set Go Books for Ethiopia project: The Great Rift Valley Lakes—how first Noh gathered interesting details and then puzzled out an organizational scheme. The fifth graders shared with me some of the tools of organization from their writing curriculum. That’s when it hit me…
Oh! I used problem: solution as the way to organize What Do They Do With All That Poo?
Curriculum tools can give us approaches to try. So can conversations. So can trial and error. So can mentor texts. So can experimentation and feedback.
The importance of feedback is one thing that makes being a good teacher of writing a demanding job — a job that is sometimes confounding. Most people, including me, can’t even say how we improved … sometimes step by step, sometimes with great leaps. Generally, though, it happens hand-in-hand with reading. With having a passion for words and sentences and paragraphs. With longing to figure out how to use words in ways that make someone else feel or know something. We can teach young writers to pay attention as they read. Were they fascinated? Did they laugh or cry? We can share our own reactions to words on the page. We can ask, “How did the writer DO that?”