nonfiction writing

Making Writing Appropriate, Precise, and Effective

Before I begin writing a nonfiction book, I usually have a clear picture in my mind of what I want to accomplish. And once in a while, that initial picture becomes a reality. But usually it doesn’t. That’s when it’s time to roll up my sleeves and start revising.

First, I look at the big picture. Have I chosen the best writing style (narrative vs. expository) and voice (lively vs. lyrical)? Does my point of view (first, second, or third) work? What about the text structure? At least one of these elements is usually the problem, and the only solution is a complete overhaul. This process is often messy and frustrating, but oh so necessary.

When these elements are working, I dive headfirst into my favorite part of the writing process—looking closely at each and every word to see if it’s appropriate, precise, and effective.

This is when I pull out my thesaurus and my dictionary. These are critical tools for comparing the exact meanings of words.

I read the writing aloud to get a feel for the flow and consider how I might improve each word, each phrase, each sentence. I replace weak verbs with vibrant ones that do more heavy lifting. I add comparisons to make abstract ideas more relatable and experiment with language devices. I also cut every single word that isn’t absolutely critical.

As I do this, I feel the kind of joy that some people have told me they experience as they decorate a birthday cake for a loved one or accessorizing an outfit or research which big-screen TV to buy or add the final details to a painting.

How can we encourage students to approach revision with this same sense of playfulness? How can we help students see that close revision can be a fun challenge instead of a tedious slog?

Melissa Stewart is the award-winning author of more than 180 nonfiction books for children, including Can an Aardvark Bark?; No Monkeys, No Chocolate; and Feathers: Not Just for Flying. Her highly-regarded website contains a rich array of educational resources for teaching nonfiction reading and writing. 

6 thoughts on “Making Writing Appropriate, Precise, and Effective

  1. Excited to see your post here, Melissa. Always love learning from you. Only recently have I learned to enjoy the “fun challenge” of revision. It’s a bit like a puzzle or riddle that needs to be solved, with just the right word or combination of thoughts. And who knew the pleasure of finding just the right “piece” and hitting “delete” to eliminate expendable text? Joy!


  2. I think we have to be writing and revising (a lot) ourselves. Once we become regular revisers, we can approach revision with a slightly more playful attitude. I don’t always love revision, but I love having revised. (See what I did there?!?!)


  3. What a treat to have Melissa Stewart here! The same tools you use for writing great nonfiction can be applied to any genre. I write poetry and spend a great deal of time searching for the just-right word. Thanks for sharing a bit of your process.


    1. Aww, thanks, Margaret. I agree that micro revision is the same for all genres, but big picture revision can vary. Text structure is probably the biggest hurdle in expository writing, but not an issue in narrative nonfiction or fiction. I’m not sure how much of a struggle it would be for poets.


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