Brainstorming Nonfiction Approaches

A couple of days ago in the Writing for Children Facebook Group, I shared this:


Someone asked me if I could explain a little more, so here goes.

In my morning pages a few days ago, I wrote:

I’m struggling with XYZ. Before, for my nonfiction books, I’ve had the structure in mind first—brief rhyming couplets led to the Can Be… books; Things to Do if You Are… poems led to If You Were the Moon. But now I’ve got a specific topic, and I’m struggling to find a fresh way to approach it. Possibly a poetic way. But definitely an unusual, unexpected way. I’ve been thinking of travel posters, maps, kid analogies, news segments…nothing feels quite right yet.

I’m a list-maker and a thinker. I want to know where I’m going before I start writing. That doesn’t mean I don’t discover one approach doesn’t work and then try another. And another. But I like to at least TRY to figure out my approach before I start writing. So I decided to brainstorm a list of 20 possible approaches. I’m going to share some of them with you, although I’ve changed the topic.

So, let’s say my topic was all kinds of boats and what their jobs are. Here’s part of my actual brainstorming list, and in some cases you’ll see other books mentioned that I loved certain aspects of and would want to reread and gather technique tips from!

  1. Boat Adventure! I’m bored. Do what boats do! Then kid tries all the different things that boats do. Bold and funny.
  2. Cause/Effect – Emphasize the cause and effect part in the three section intros: carry cargo, do science, have fun.
  3. Storyline like [xyz] – unknown thing is trying to figure out what to do. “You could” ___________ “like a” [kind of boat]. “No, that won’t work. End reveal is that the unknown creature is a human kid. Kind of expected.
  4. Compare/Contrast: Slice through waves (speed boat) or drift downriver (barges). Maybe rhyming, maybe not. But very short and young.
  5. Some boats carry things or people. Some boats do jobs related to weather and science. Some boats just want to party. Three different reasons boats are shaped and work like they do.
  6. It’s a great day on the water. What will you do? // Rhyming answers from different boats. Just one line per boat.
  7. Rhyming survey a la Feathers and Hair.
  8. Lyrical straight nf with emphasis on language. Reread A Nest is Noisy, When Spring Comes, Looking for a Moose, Weeds Find a Way.
  9. Prose but with a boat refrain. Check out Jazz Baby again.
  10. Boats writing notes/letters to someone back home? Or some other boat? Not sure who. Reread Dear Mrs. LaRue. (Carol already bought THE OCTOPUS POSTCARDS) Meerkat Mail. Dear Tabby.
  11. Take off on a nursery rhyme or cumulative story? Read The Bickleby’s Birdbath. And Two Boys Booed.
  12. What Boats Know—Little Lessons from Boats. Reread Christmas Cookies.
  13. Diary of a Boat. Or just story from that person’s point of view. Look at Diary of a Worm again.
  14. Boats by the Numbers: work in lots of boat facts by highlighting one size or speed or something about each one. Mind-boggling Numbers.
  15. Riddle format about the boats. In rhyme? See Eggs, 1, 2, 3. And the JPL one…
  16. Story where a group of boats all plan to meet up, but the boats start disappearing one by one. Turns out they’re all collaborating to accomplish something big.
  17. Boat school – School play or school’s newscast with students sharing what they did that weekend.

OK, those are 17 of the 23 I came up with. I’m running out of time and some of the others are too hard to shift to boats! Hopefully this gives you a clearer picture of what I mean when I say I’m brainstorming approaches.

Successful picture books are 90% concept and 10% execution. For nonfiction, fresh concepts are always sought after. After doing my list of 23, I have 2 or 3 that really stood out as fun things to try.

I also realized that after several “quiet” nonfiction picture books, I’d like to try something a little more on the funny/zany side. So I’ll try my first choice. And if that doesn’t work…well, I have 22 others to try!

About Laura Purdie Salas

children's writer, poet, reader, visiting author, speaker/teacher, mentor, copyeditor, freelance writer
This entry was posted in Writing Advice and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Brainstorming Nonfiction Approaches

  1. kathalsey says:

    This is a fabulous post, Laurie. I’d say you could expand this into a workshop for writers or an article for SCBWI. Love NF structures and you made it all so concrete. Great lesson. TY May your boats float.

    • Sherri Jones Rivers says:

      I agree, Kathy. Outstanding list. I don’t think I could have come up with more than 3 or 4 ways. Thinking outside of the box and having mentor texts in mind certainly helps.

  2. Pat Bauer says:

    Thanks for sharing your thinking process! Very helpful to see all the creative ways to approach a topic.

  3. Thank you, Laura! I love your methodical approach!

  4. This is incredibly helpful. It is also one of my weaknesses. Thank you for helping me to see outside of the box!

  5. David McMullin says:

    Great examples of how to get creative with a topic. Thanks so much, Laura.

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