Nonfiction Writing as Answering Questions

CLP 200x216

by Christine Liu-Perkins

“Just what is it that keeps readers reading? . . . Readers stay with a book as long as it promises to answer still unresolved questions.”
— Susan Rabiner & Alfred Fortunato, Thinking Like Your Editor (New York: Norton, 2002), 103

The suspense of unresolved questions is clearly important in fiction. But the quote above was actually written in regard to nonfiction. When I read this, it struck me as a timely “Aha!” just as I was beginning to draft my nonfiction book At Home in Her Tomb: Lady Dai and the Ancient Chinese Treasures of Mawangdui.

I realized that the book would need questions in search of answers that pulled the reader into the book and all the way through to the end. Questions like, What do the artifacts tell us about the people in the three tombs—their lifestyle, their daily activities, their beliefs and concerns?

This approach helped me sort through information from more than four hundred sources. It helped me decide what to keep in, what to leave out, and what readers would need to know to understand the facts and related issues. Questions also helped me figure out the structure of each chapter individually as an outline of logical flow from one question to its answer to the next, related question.

As I began writing each chapter, I thought about what questions a reader would want answered. For example, in the chapter on Lady Dai’s mysterious cadaver, I thought readers would want to know:

  • What was the condition of Lady Dai’s body when it was found?
  • An autopsy was performed on her cadaver. What is an autopsy? What can be learned from an autopsy?
  • What did the doctors discover about Lady Dai’s body?
  • How did she die?
  • What is the normal process of decomposition?
  • How might bodies avoid decomposition? What processes have been used to preserve bodies?
  • How was Lady Dai’s body preserved?
  • Are there other cadavers like Lady Dai’s?

I then wrote the chapter focused on answering those questions in ways that would (hopefully!) capture readers’ attention and leave them satisfied at the end—well, at least until the cliffhanger question leading into the next chapter . . .


3 comments to Nonfiction Writing as Answering Questions

  • Ceil

    Great post, Chris. I’ve thought about this a lot with fiction, how effective it is to end each chapter with a cliffhanger, leaving the reader wondering what’s going to happen next, but it makes a lot of sense for non-fiction, too. The mystery of unanswered questions is what keeps us turning the pages.

  • And it sure does apply to fiction! One of the most fatal things you can do to your pace is answer all the reader’s questions–the story just stops.

  • Chris–Wish I would have had this post to refer to when I was teaching expository writing to kids!

    It strikes me that this is a useful method for fiction too–what question is each scene or chapter going to answer?


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Write it Fast, Keep it Fresh


LBR-color-headshot-200x300-1by Lisa Brown Roberts

Once upon a time, my first official writing mentor read several chapters of my WIP and said, “You’ve lost the freshness. You waited too long to get back to this.”

After I removed the knife from my heart (and decided not to use it on her), I thought seriously about what she said. I went back and read the chapters I’d written much earlier and those I’d just given her. She was right.

It killed me to put that book aside, but I did. Then I wrote another one, laboriously, but with her cautionary words in mind. Eventually that book was contracted as my debut novel, but not after many significant revisions, during which I worried constantly about losing the freshness. Except for the weekend I ran away to write and cranked out about 20,000 words in three days: raw, fresh words full of emotion. Yeah, they required revision but they were full of life.

When I started my next project I wanted to try something different. I’d been intrigued by NANO but felt it was virtually impossible between day job, spouse, and spawn. Even if I couldn’t do NANO, I’d learned I could write fast, based on my crazy writing weekends, so I tried two new things: outlining and writing a super-fast first draft. I’d been collecting quotes and stories from writers who swore by crappy first drafts that preserved emotion and could be prettified later. I wanted to try it.

I wrote the first draft of the next book in three months and had a fabulous time. I didn’t stop to research or fiddle with the perfect turn of phrase. I churned out pages of swoony rom-com and watched the word count pile up quickly. When I started revisions, it was much less painful because the book still felt fresh. I was hooked on fast-drafting. Even more exciting, that book also sold.

You can guess what I did with my latest project – jammed out another first draft in about four months. Made notes of all the bothersome details to research later. Used “filler names” for minor characters and wrote notes to myself like, “Homecoming or Surfer Ball? Decide.” The deciding came later, after I captured the swooniness and the romantic tension and the laughter. Once you start riding that emotional roller coaster with your characters, you can’t get off. Well, you can, but you abandon them mid-scream and who wants to do that?

As writers everywhere gear up for NaNoWriMo, I’m sending them lots of good vibes. I’m a convert to the benefits of fast first drafts and so grateful I tried it. Every writer has to figure our her own process, and it took me a long time to learn mine. I’m constantly tweaking my process and I write up notes after each project about what I learned, and what I’ll do differently next time.

It’s hard to look at a labor of love and wonder if you’ve lost the freshness that excited you in the first place, to decide to put a project aside, maybe forever. Sometimes I still think about that book I put aside. Maybe I’ll pick it up and try again, maybe not. If I ever do give it another go, you can bet I’ll write it fast.

If you’re one of those writers who struggles with finishing manuscripts, constantly going back to edit what you’ve already written, consider trying a fast draft. You might discover that sometimes the hare does beat the tortoise. And nothing feels better than typing “The End.”

13 comments to Write it Fast, Keep it Fresh

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Research for Little Red Hen Reboot!


 Whiney Writer

by Whiney Writer

“Research!” I woke up and heard in my mind. “You have to do more research to make your writing reek of verisimilitude!” The voice belonged to my new muse—let’s call him Hans. Hans tells me he is a big, strong farm boy, and so he’s been bugging me to update old folktales, starting with The Little Red Hen. With Robot Raccoons in the hands of my agent (she will be, anyway!) I was ready to jump on a new project.

So I got in touch with some friends of an acquaintance who run a bed & breakfast and organic farm. I volunteered to help them with chores if they would let me sleep in the barn and do up-close research about how farm animals behave when no one is looking. Like a TV reality show starring the Little Red Hen and her barnyard friends!

I woke up on my bed of hay to the glorious sounds of a rooster crowing! At 4:30 in the morning! While it was still dark! I thought they had to wait for the sun! But Hans told me it was auspicious so I crawled out of bed to go feed the chickens. I let them out of the coop and I immediately spotted the star of my reboot of the Little Red Hen franchise. She hopped out followed by her three cute little chicks going peep! peep! peep! She had that look about her that said, “I am a chicken who knows what she wants! And right now I want corn!”

And now Hans mused another great idea. Illustrate our reboot of The Little Red Hen franchise with pictures of real animals doing all the things in the book—finding the wheat, planting it, harvesting it, doing some other farmy stuff, and finally baking it, then telling her barnyard pals to go suck eggs. (I had this great idea of having her pose next to an Easy-Bake Oven wearing a little chef’s hat and a tiny egg beater! Cute or what?!)

The first photo was easy. All I had to do was get a picture of her pecking at some grain. Hans said it was corn, not wheat, but I told him that in my update she was going to make cornbread. I got down on my belly in the big chicken pen, took the photo, then the rooster jumped on my head, crowed, and proceeded to poop! Blech!

Now came the tricky part—getting the other animals into the story. I had access to a cow, a pig, and a cat. By hook and by crook and some rope, I got all three into the pen, even though Hans the Muse was saying, “Oh no. Oh no.” But he wasn’t upset enough to take seriously.

Well, he should have gotten more upset, that’s all I can say. The cow promptly rubbed his rear against the chicken coop and knocked it over, the pig spotted some fresh eggs and sucked them down, then they both pooped—oh my gosh, what a lot of poop. Then I turned to find The Little Red Hen flying at the cat like a hen-ja warrior. And sticking out of the cat’s mouth I spotted a couple little chick legs. “You spit that out right now!” I yelled, but in a bound the cat was gone, I guess to go play with her new friend.

I had to regroup, so I chased the cow and the pig out of the pen. But I forgot to open the gate so they simply trampled over the fencing. A moment later there were chickens everywhere—in the trees, on the barn, crossing the road. I stood there, rooster poop dripping down my neck, watching the cow and pig poop some more.

I asked Hans if he had any other bright ideas. “Everyone poops,” he said with a sigh.

“Eureka!” I cried. “No one has ever written a book about that!”


2 comments to Research for Little Red Hen Reboot!

  • Research can get interesting–I once had a security guard run me off a power plant’s grounds. But I have to say, I’ve never been pooped on.

  • Jane Bigelow

    Go, Whiney! You could even link this with your Robot Raccoons novel by pointing out that one of the unfair advantages of robot raccoons: they never have to poop.

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