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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

In the Beginning

What Is the Best Way to Organize Non-fiction?

Lori’s post led me to think about the deadly way we tell young people to write in their non-fiction. The most standard way to organize a paper is in terms of chronology X happened first, then Y, then Z. That is a list, which we hope becomes a bit more than that when we imply causation. Because X happened first, Y followed, which, in time, became Z. In terms of books, one is a timeline or chonology — events are listed in the order they took place; the second is a narrative — events do things, they set forces in motion, which result in changes. But that narrative is still a prisoner of chronology. You know that chapter one is set earlier in time than chapter two, because moving through the book is moving along a succession of dates.

Folks, there is no reason why a non-fiction books (the model for students’ papers) needs to be organized this way. Why "begin at the beginning"? What, after all, is the beginning? Does the story begin with George Washington is born, or his ancestor came to America, or the English Civil War which caused that earlier Washington to leave, or when George goes off to fight the French, or in Valley Forge. Why not "begin at the most dramatic" — in other words, organize around intensity of interest? Begin when the story gets really hot, then, having caught the attention of the reader, backtrack to cover what he or she needs to know? Or, begin at the end — Washginton giving his farewell speech and the devotion of his men — why did they care so much? Or Washington on his death bed, and the nation fears for its future, yet rests secure in what he built, not a royal succession, but a political process, a presidency — how did he create that, was he the one who did? Now we go back to Washington general, soldier, child, his ancestors and the heritage of fighting against the crown. 

I think form is as interesting as conent, and we ought to play with it, experiment — how many different ways can we recount some aspect of history, and what is gained and lost from each one? Is chronology best? Is reverse chronology best? Is intensity best? Is posing a big question best? Can we begin with a minor character, as you might in a novel or play — we watch someone else walk on stage, which leads us to come upon our main character in an unexpected way (Jim Murphy did a version of this with climate and mood in American Plague). 

If you feel like posting here, I’d love your thoughts on the pros and cons (and good examples) of different ways people have used form in non-fiction. And even if you don’t want to post publically, think about this when you speak to students and teachers — deciding how to recount information is just as important as the information itself — in fact it completely changes how readers will take in what you have to say. In the beginning…which beginning?


  1. Betty Carter says:

    What I think is so important about form (or structure) is that different forms give youngsters ideas not about what to think but about how to think. Yes, listing is an important way to divide up information and chronology is as well (somewhat like story narrative, but that’s for another discussion), but it is those great nonfiction writers who use other tools — when appropriate — so well. Look at Jean Craighead George’s new book The Wolves Are Back for cause/effect. Or Paul Fleischman’s Dateline Troy (both the first edition and revision) for compare/contrast or Jim Murphy’s Alamo book (I’m sorry I’ve forgotten the name) for known/unknown or Seymour Simon’s Animal Fact, Animal Fiction for the same kind of thinking. Or Susan Goodman’s On This Spot for reverse chronology or Mitch Frank’s books (Understanding the Holy Land or Understanding the MIddle East) for question/answer. Each book is strong, presents great information, could even be “used for reports,” but each is about perspective and thinking. And I think that it is thinking we’re looking for “in the beginning” and at the end as well.

  2. Marc Aronson says:


    Thanks for that great list. Anyone want to add more examples or categories so we can put together a running bibliography on different ways of structuring NF — which could be useful to all sorts of kids and teachers, for it would both show different literary forms and, as Betty says, different modes of thought and argument.

  3. mr chompchomp says:

    Narratives by necessity do move through time, but groups of short narratives could also be organized non-chronologically. Even a student’s own narrative might be organized spatially, say by moving from room to room in their own house or school. Or thematically, ignoring chronology all together in order to drive a focus on a particular subject. It’s tough to get students, even good ones, to do this, especially in non-fiction. Interestingly, newspapers, which few students read, are great examples of non-chronological form. The inverted pyramid form of reporting is kind of dull, but at least its highly purposeful. In my classes students with experience in journalism did have an easier time applying form.


  4. I like that idea of spatial organization — reminds me of the memory palace of Mateo Ricci (sp?) the Jesuit who came to China early on. I would think it would be fun for kids to experiment with.

  5. Mary Ann Cappiello says:

    I think Russell Freedman’s latest Who Was First? is another excellent example of en effective text structure that doesn’t follow a direct chronology. He starts with what most Americans know – the story of Columbus “discovering” America. From there, he moves us towards what we might not know, first the Chinese, then the Vikings. Ultimately, the book ends at the very origins of humanity, and dwells in all that we don’t know about who came to North America first. We move from known to less known, from what has been proven wrong to what possibilities exist for what we may know in the future about our past.

  6. Marc Aronson says:

    Mary Ann: Good point, I’d put that in the category of thematic organization — most intense first, most familiar first — start the reader where he or she is engaged or comfortable, then start exploring.