More than Just the Facts, Ma’am

Absolute Blank

By Amanda Marlowe (The Bellman)

When I was in junior high, I tried to read a book about druids. I really wanted to understand the culture. I was motivated to read. And after the end of the first few pages, I sat back and tried to figure out what I’d learned. I was upset to realize I couldn’t really remember anything at all about what I’d just read. I read the first few pages again, and still came up blank. I tried to read more, but I couldn’t seem to retain any information about the druids, or anything else. I ultimately shoved the book under my bed, and decided that even though I was highly literate when reading fiction, I was completely illiterate when it came to reading non-fiction. I’d had same problems with most of my textbooks. And with other non-fiction I’d tried to read. It was like trying to read in a foreign language I didn’t know.

Things didn’t improve much as I got older. It was a struggle to get through the technical articles I needed to read to get my degree. I avoided non-fiction books like the plague. What was it that made reading non-fiction so hard for me? I wasn’t stupid, I understood the words, and I even understood the facts most of the time, but I just couldn’t seem to understand how things fit together.

Eventually I realized the problem was not so much about my inability to read. I found some non-fiction books I had no trouble with at all. I discovered that the problems I had all stemmed from the presentation.

There are two ways to write non-fiction. One way is to list a bunch of facts you want people to know about the topic. This was the way I most encountered. The other way is to turn the facts into an interconnected story. Guess which way led me to understand the material, and which way didn’t.

Non-fiction writers can often benefit from some of the same techniques fiction writers use. Both ultimately have the same goal: to tell a story. Non-fiction writers are just telling a story that has facts for its characters and themes of understanding for its plot lines. The best non-fiction writers craft and build a story as intricate as any classic novel. A science writer can turn the discoveries leading up to the development of a theory into a fascinating mystery story. A historian can make the people and events of an era as exciting as an action-adventure novel. Or they both can write a “Just the facts, Ma’am” book that ends up, at best, as a decent reference guide, and at worst, collecting dust under the bed with the druids.

When is a list of facts more than a list of facts? Consider the following two examples:

From Victorian America: Transformations in Everyday Life by Thomas J. Schlereth

In many rural, one-room elementary schools, a single teacher taught children from ages six through fourteen. Such schools usually had a rough tripartite division into beginning, intermediate, and advanced work, with reading, writing, spelling, and arithmetic stressed in the first phase; geography and nature study in the second phase; and history and grammar included in the advanced phase. During a school day that lasted from 8 A.M. to 4 P.M. in the winter months, the students learned the four Rs, reading, ‘riting, ‘rithmetic, and recitation. McGuffey’s Eclectic Readers were commonly the texts to be memorized and recited. Between 1836 and 1922, approximately 122 million copies of these readers were sold, with the strongest sales being from 1870 to 1890.


What memories surround this little Southern Maryland school house. For over a hundred years it has stood in its shady grove on the grounds of Christ Church in Port Republic, Maryland. Here came the youth of Calvert County to sit at wooden desks, to open red and tan McGuffy Readers, to write on slates and to eat mid-day meals from tin lunch pails. Here during recess games of “Annie Over” and “Bug in the Gully,” they raced shouting over the sun-dappled play ground. Here a single, dedicated teacher taught reading, writing and arithmetic to seven grades of boys and girls in a classroom at times so crowded that the young students had to sit along the edge of the teacher’s platform or cram them selves into the aisles between the desks, their warm bodies supplementing the heat that in winter radiated from the iron chunk stove in the center of the room.

The first example is from an historical overview of the American Victorian era. The second is from the Calvert County website about one of its tourist attractions. Both examples convey what a day in a one-room school house was like. While the first gives you some extra facts, the second gives you both facts and a sense of what those facts meant to people. Notice how the second example uses some fiction techniques—it turns the facts into a story and helps you to see them in a larger context rather than as isolated tidbits of information. The information is shown, not merely told. Admittedly the second example is intended to sell the one-room schoolhouse as a tourist attraction, but you can use the same sort of techniques to sell your ideas to a larger audience.

I bought the Schlereth book cited in the first example as background for a historical story I was thinking about writing. I found the lack of explicit connections between the facts made it impossible to get any feel for American Victorian society, however. I could get no grip on the thought patterns that were behind the statistics and facts he presented. Although the “thinking of the time” was part of the fact list, it was never woven into a story that made sense. Although they may have been accurate, the facts never felt real. (I pulled it out from under the bed when I was looking for examples for this article.)

How can you keep your brilliant research from collecting dust?

Here are a few suggestions on how to make your non-fiction more story-like and compelling:

  • Think of it as being a story.

Tell the story of the topic. Look over the flow of the content in the same way that you would analyze a fiction plot. Have you established the basic ideas before you get into the intricacies of all the details and exceptions to the rule? Are you too bogged down in trivial details? Where you can, show, don’t tell.

  • Identify the main themes.

Think about the major themes behind the facts. What ideas tie things together? If you are writing a text about physics, for example, you might keep bringing up the ideas of matter and energy and how they interact. If you are writing about a war, identify what political and social themes have had a large influence on the fighting.

  • Tie the facts into the themes.

Isolated facts are easily forgotten. If you use your main themes as the thread that weaves throughout your facts, you give people the structure and context they need to understand and remember the facts.

  • Connect, connect, connect.

People who are not experts in a subject aren’t able to make the same immediate connections that the experts make. In fact, there have been studies that show the ability to make many connections is what distinguishes the experts from the novices in subjects like physics. Explicitly help your audience make connections between themes and topics that you take for granted. Help make them experts by helping them to see connections they would otherwise miss.

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