Curiosity: Writing Nonfiction

By Isabel Sawyer | Categories: Writing

Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire.

William Butler Yeats

It seems to me that nonfiction writing is one of the least talked about genres-and yet, maybe the most important. One of the most valuable tenets of good nonfiction writing is CURIOSITY. And, once writers recognize this, they realize how important curiosity is in all other genres. Nonfiction writers aren’t necessarily experts on the topics they write about, but they are curious and ask themselves questions, conduct research, and communicate what they learn in an interesting way.

When I first began blogging, I had a lengthy coaching conversation with Anne Marie Corgill about her writing. She shared with me that often the best writers write about topics they are curious about and want to learn more about, not topics in which they are experts. The relief and enthusiasm I felt after my chat with Ann Marie was huge-I was much more excited to write about topics I was curious about and hence did not feel the pressure to be “right.”

When teaching nonfiction writing to students, curiosity must be a word they hear over and over again throughout the unit. Ask “what are you curious about?” They should initially have the opportunity to immerse themselves in the topic, as I did when I decided to write this blog post:

  • I googled Lucy Calkins perspective on writing nonfiction
  • I checked out the NCTE‘s and NWP‘s websites for information
  • I found an article in The New Yorker written by John McPhee about the process he goes through when drafting nonfiction

After deciding on my focus, I began drafting-just throwing words and ideas on the paper. Then I began to think about organization.

During each phase of the nonfiction writing process, it is helpful for writers to learn interesting ways to organize and present information while also cultivating their own curiosity. Young writers need to think about the following when writing nonfiction pieces:

  • Research skills, such as taking notes, categorizing information by subtopic, and conducting effective Internet searches
  • Features of expository text
  • And, most importantly, topics about which they are curious

As John McPhee writes, structure is the element of nonfiction that he often struggles with-matching theme and chronology throughout his pieces can be challenging. Author Seymour Simon finds that comparisons and descriptive words are often helpful literary techniques that aid his nonfiction writing. Not only does curiosity light a fire, but as John Dos Passos wrote: Curiosity urges you on-the driving force.