Sue Bradford Edwards is a featured presenter for the All Write Now! 2016 conference who will give you excellent advice on nonfiction writing. https://suebe.wordpress.com/
Bill Hopkins - On your website you say, "I always want to know how someone else does things. Sometimes the people that I’m curious about lived long ago – I worked in archaeology during and after college. I still look at the ground when I walk just in case I might find something. Other times, the people who fascinate me are people that I bump into as I go through my life, working pow-wows, interviewing immigrants and just looking for someone who might be interesting. I’m always asking questions." This is a good credo for any writer, from reporter to poet to historian to novelist, etc. Tell us a few ways or times that curiosity has helped you in your writing.
Sue Bradford Edwards - Curiosity has been a huge asset for me as a nonfiction writer in part because I am interested in so many things. Social sciences, history, biology, and earth sciences. There is so much that fascinates me. So when my editor sends me a list and says “pick one,” there is always something on the list that excites me.
Curiosity and excitement are 100% essential to do the research needed for a 15,000 word piece of nonfiction. Because I’m willing to dig into the topic, I always find a few surprises.
Sometimes my Education.com editor will contact me and want me to pitch a list of preschool reading or math activities. Other times she wants me to come up with games, science projects, or art activities. Because I’m so curious, I’m interested in them all.
BH - Some of your topics are World War I and the Cuban missile crisis. Are our children being taught these historical events? Besides buying your books (a good idea!), how else can we educate our children about American history?
SBE - Keep in mind that many of my nonfiction books are written for teens. The ideal reader for my book on trench warfare is fourteen.
I know that my son has had all of this and more in school. He’s in public school. But I think a lot of it depends on the school and the teachers. We’re very fortunate to have had top teachers who want to educate our children about the world. They don’t dumb things down.
BH - How can we educate our children about American history?
SBE - Make it accessible. Books are obviously great but go beyond books.
My son has grown up with me hauling him through museums and historic sites. We’ve tromped through cemeteries. We don’t just go and look. We discuss it. “What did you think about X?” “Did you notice that Y and Z contradict each other? Why do you think that is?”
We watch gross documentaries like “The Poisoner's Handbook,” my favorite, and “The Deadliest Warrior,” his favorite.
That’s another big part of it. Pay attention to what they are interested in learning. We do gross history and a lot of history that people are still arguing about. And I make sure that that goes in my books as well. I just make sure that my readers understand why the controversy and what the different sides believe.
BH - How does a nonfiction writer get published? Is it necessary to have experience or a degree or something else to write non-fiction?
SBE - Any kind of expertise can be beneficial. My degrees helped in part because I learned how to do research. I have a BA in anthropology and an MA in history. I learned to question and challenge and not to take things at face value. I also learned how to do interviews. That’s made a big difference in my work but I also knew that I wanted to write by the time I earned my second degree. I chose it so that I would learn to research.
There are a lot of ways to publish as a nonfiction writer. When I was just getting started the common wisdom was that you should write for magazines first and then write books. You still hear this but I’m not sure how valid it is. Yes, magazine sales will show an editor you can work with an editor and that you can finish a project but it will be a short project, much shorter than a book in most cases.
If you are interested in writing book length nonfiction for children, look for opportunities to do work-for-hire. That’s how I got my books with ABDO and 12 Story Library. I actually work for Red Line Editorial; they produce books for other publishers. I don’t earn royalties but I have the experience and the bylines that show a book editor what I can do.
If you have expertise in a given field, it is a lot easier to make sales in that area. My degree helps me get history jobs; there is a lot of competition to write history. If you have expertise in physical science, definitely look for markets in the appropriate area. They need people who can write and actually understands science.
But what do you do if you don’t have expertise? You borrow it. That comes through research – reading everything you can find and also interviewing experts. If you are willing to do interviews this will win points with editors because a lot of writers, many of us are introverts, won’t do interviews.
BH - Are there niches for nonfiction writers? By that I mean, let's say I write books on the first European settlers in America. Are there books and websites for such authors?
SBE - I don’t network by “niche.” For me it is important to remember that if you want to write for young readers, you need to network with other people who write for young readers.
Writing for children and teens is different in many ways than writing for adults. You have to keep reader interest and reading levels in mind as you write. You can’t lose sight of the adults in a young reader’s life either. Adults buy books for children. This means that you have the double audience. It has to be of interest to and appropriate for children but also appeal to Mom, Grandad, a teacher, or librarian.
People who write for adults try to be helpful, but writing for kids is so different that you really need to speak to someone with experience in that area. We know the markets. We know how to do the actual writing. And we know the audience.
BH - What do you tell young students who say they want to write books like yours?
SBE - First, I congratulate them on being part of an amazing club. I point out that writers get to explore new things all the time. We get to dig and ask nosey questions.
I also encourage them to read. Read the types of books that you want to write. But don’t copy them. Write the truth that you believe people need to hear.
I also remind them that nonfiction tells a story. There are characters. There is a plot and a setting. There is dialogue. And it is all 100% true.
I always offer to read anything that they want to share with me. I’ve yet to have a young writer take me up on that offer but I will continue to make it.
I encourage young writers to connect with like-minded people for encouragement. They can do it at face-to-face critique groups or they can take part in the vast network of writers online. There are a lot of opportunities and people who will encourage you. Don’t listen to the naysayers. Connect with the people who are willing to build you up and help with the story you have to share.