Crafting Nonfiction: Conducting Research and Organizing Information

Melissa Stewart is the author of today's Author Spotlight.

Melissa Stewart is the author of today’s Author Spotlight.

When I do school visits, I tell students that researching a nonfiction book is a lot like researching a report for school.

Most of the time, I start out by using my library’s database network to find books and articles related to my topic. I may watch documentary films and listen to news stories in the National Public Radio archives. In many cases, I observe animals in their natural setting or at a zoo or aquarium.

When I’ve exhausted these sources, I begin interviewing experts. Since I write about science, I usually consult scientists. They are the best source of up-to-date information, and they often share interesting tidbits that haven’t been published.

How do I find experts? I use the Internet. When I google “university of” and my topic, the names of scientists pop up. I look at their websites and review their resumes. I track down their scientific papers and read them. Once I decide which scientists can best answer my questions, I contact them.

As I gather research, I type notes into a Microsoft Word file, always using my own words to avoid any possibility of plagiarism.

When I think I have most of the information I’ll need (There are always gaps to fill in along the way.), I save the research file as is, so I can use it later to create my bibliography. Then I make a copy of the file and dive into the next step in my process. I call it Chunk and Check.

To organize my material, I think about the big ideas I’d like to include in the book. What’s most important for readers to know? What will surprise or fascinate them most?  As I answer these questions, I jot down a quick list.

This list is not an outline. There is no order to the ideas at this point. While some of the ideas on the list will probably become section headings in my table of contents, others may be subsections. And some may not end up in the book at all. After all, this is just my first stab at wrangling the information.

My list guides me as I cut and paste, cut and paste, creating chunks of related information. For example, if I’m writing a survey book about dolphins, my chunks would probably include What Dolphins Eat, Where Dolphins Live, How Dolphins Raise Their Young, and How Dolphins Communicate. They might also include Dolphin Tricks or Record-Setting Dolphins.

During the chunking process, I often highlight text blocks in different colors. It helps me make connections between bits of information. Plus the colors are just fun. I always use the color blue to mark facts that I’d like to double check for accuracy.

When I spot facts that appeared in two or more sources, I delete the redundant information. By the time I’m done chunking, a forty-page research document might be whittled down to twenty pages, which is much more manageable.

Finally, I’m ready to write.

Melissa Stewart is the award-winning author of more than 150 nonfiction books for children, including No Monkeys, No Chocolate; Feathers: Not Just for Flying, Under the Snow, and Animal Grossapedia. She is the co-author of Perfect Pairs: Using Fiction & Nonfiction Picture Books to Teach Life Science, K-2 and blogs about the nonfiction writing process and creative ways to integrate science and language arts instruction at Celebrate Science. Melissa also offers school visits and teacher in-service programs.


(A note from Stacey.)

  • This giveaway is for three prize packages, each of which includes copies of Deadliest Animals and Meteors, by Melissa Stewart, as well as a Super Readers fold-out poster.  Many thanks to National Geographic Kids Books for donating these prize packages for three separate commenters.
  • For a chance to win one of these three prize packages, please leave a comment about this post by Thursday, May 27th at 11:59 p.m. EDT. I’ll use a random number generator to pick the winners, whose names I will announce at the bottom of this post, by Sunday, May 31st.
  • Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment, so I can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win.  From there, my contact at National Geographic will ship your book out to you.  (NOTE: Your e-mail address will not be published online if you leave it in the e-mail field only.)
  • If you are the winner of the book, I will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – MELISSA STEWART. Please respond to my e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. A new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.

Comments are now closed.  Congratulations to hmq11, mrssokolowski, ReadWriteThruLife whose commenter numbers wereselected to win the prize packages.