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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.

GIVEAWAY INFORMATION

(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.

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39 thoughts on “Crafting Nonfiction: Conducting Research and Organizing Information Leave a comment

  1. Thank you for sharing your process of researching and writing. It is essential for kids to understand the role purpose plays in this process. Without that understanding, kids tend to give everything the same weight getting lost in a quagmire of information. Very helpful!

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  2. Research from the Internet can produce overwhelming results. Keeping the question in mind during the search and note-taking process is key! Thank you for sharing your method.

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  3. Melissa, I have struggled with how to handle redundant information. I also like how you mark facts needing confirming research w a color. Great post, thanks for the tips. Thanks for Sharing Melissa’s insights Stacey.

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  4. Teacher and children’s author here . . .and I can’t wait to use this “mini-workshop” of information with students and in my OWN writing process! Thanks!

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  5. What a wonderful idea and lots of useful information. Thanks so much for sharing your process. I love your system and hope you don’t mind if I copy some of it. I especially think it’s a brilliant idea to use the color blue for things you need to check for accuracy. I am going to share your article with my students. Thanks again.

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  6. I currently work with k learners and we use the RAN chart from Explorations Hoytt/Stead to introduce our young learners to reasearch process. It is imperative that we offer students concrete steps so that the task of research is not so overwhelming. I appreciated your information and how the went deep but also providing students with a doable framework.

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  7. I teach my students a similar method in our classroom! We use index cards instead of a word document, but that makes it very easy to reorganize our facts as needed. This year my students surprised me by taking index cards home so they could watch research videos on their own! They will love to hear that their process is just like a published writer’s!

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  8. It’s always such a gift to hear about the processes authors use to craft their texts. I think I’m going to print this out to be able to share it with my students in upcoming non-fiction units. I love the making a list and chunking and checking, as many other people have said. I also love what she said about her research methods. It’s making me think about how to connect students with scientists to interview. Thank you!

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  9. Wow, Melissa, it’s been a while since I’ve thought about other ways to approach the research process – and this post made me stop in my tracks. My favorite part – your list. What a liberating idea to jot a list in no particular order, and use that as a way to make connections and bring out ideas.

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  10. I love this series and Melissa Stewart’s books are such a great example of nonfiction being engaging and fun. I’m wondering if Melissa comes up with the ideas for what she wants to research and write about on her own and what inspires her to think of those ideas.

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  11. My kids are currently digging into their nonfiction research essays. Although they loved color coding, it has been a push to get them to categorize their notes and “zoom out” to find the big picture. I’ll be sharing this with them tomorrow morning to help reinforce the process!

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  12. Melissa and Stacey, this is wonderful to have a peak into the writing process of a non-fiction author. It is so similar to writing a research paper. The one take away that I love and will pass on to my new college freshman son is that when writing down notes – color code the text. My email is pstegink@fhps.net

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  13. I love the idea of ‘chunk and check’ and your thinking about what’s most important, what information could go together, what’s repetitive and your willingness to “wrangle” with the information and not commit too early in the process to structure. I’m thinking many of our students could be doing similar work by sorting, chunking and checking, and color coding their post-its. Where we have the technology in upper grades, students could be doing this right in googleDocs. Thank you for sharing your research process, Melissa.

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  14. It is always great to hear from published authors about the work they are doing when writing their own books. Sharing with students this researching process is very helpful. I especially liked hearing how you use technology tools to help with not only the actual research, but then going on to the initial planning and organizing stages. I am a literacy coach at a 1:1 elementary school, and am always looking for ways that our students can be using their iPads to enhance their learning in ELA. Thanks for sharing your ideas!!

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  15. I am an Instructional Technology Coach that works closely with our district Instructional Coaches and I love the idea of color coding your writing! What a great way to use technology tools to improve the writing process! So many students want their first draft to be their final draft that it takes them a really long time to put thoughts down on “paper”. However, if they were to write down their thoughts randomly and then color code them concept (green for habitat, red for food, yellow for how they raise their young, etc.) then it would be really easy to see how the writing piece goes together. And I love the idea of having a specific color for facts that need to be checked! Thank you for sharing!

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  16. Taking notes from articles is brilliant. Kids usually cut, paste, and plagiarize. This is a great idea and I can use it to help them. Also starting with library resources like databases to build your background knowledge is valuable. Especially when kids just Google everything.

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  17. Great post! Love that you like to use colors–in part, just because they’re fun! This was a great overview of what published/professional writers do…and just what we want our burgeoning writers to do as well!

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  18. This article was very helpful. It validated what I have always told my students about research and incorporating both the library and information from the Internet. This will be an article that I share with my fellow colleagues next year and implement with all students.

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  19. This article shows why it is so important to teach reading and writing in an integrated way. Your description of chunking by topic is the reverse of teaching kids reading nonfiction to look at paragraphs and identify the main ideas. I love it!

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  20. You describe the process so clearly. I can’t wait to teach nonfiction writing again next year to my new group of students using this post to guide me!

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  21. I think this whole paragraph was informative. . . “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.”

    Too often, maybe we push for organizing when we still need to be “wrangling”.

    Thanks, Melissa and Stacey!

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