Ideas and Details

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.)

Water Hole WaitingAs 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.
And then…
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
and then…
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…
they poo.

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.

hyenaHav­ing 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.

The Great Rift Valley LakesNot 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?”

Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Heather Frederick
3 years ago

Great arti­cle, Jane! Can’t wait to read about zoo poo!

Catherine Urdahl
3 years ago

Thanks, Jane! I loved hear­ing about the process – and the strug­gle! – behind WHAT DO THEY DO WITH ALL THAT POO?

Donna Janell Bowman
3 years ago

My for­mer VCFA advi­sors are so darned smart! There is so much prac­ti­cal insight in this arti­cle, Jane. Thanks for shar­ing your wis­dom. I will hap­pi­ly pass this along.

Virginia Euwer Wolff
3 years ago

Thanks, Jane, for this clar­i­fy­ing view of ways the tec­ton­ic plates can come togeth­er. Three-plus cheers for tenacity.

3 years ago

Thank you. This is quite helpful.