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The Teacher Tip

Learn how the Narrators of Nonfiction Keep us Engaged

April 12, 2018

Adapted from Minds Made for Stories by Tom Newkirk.

Humor. Writers do not need to be comedians, but it surely helps to inject humor into almost any topic. A capacity to mock the seriousness of any situation or position is a sign of mental health – and to be too much in the “role,” to be humorless and over serious, is actually unnerving for those around such a person.

Surprise Value. A close cousin of humor is surprise – in fact, humor is a form of surprise. Writers can delight us by the well-chosen, unexpected fact.

Employing Speech. One obvious way of conveying an authorial presence is to shift from a more formal written register into a speech register. Shifts like these create comfort, intimacy, even a momentary sense of relaxation – as if to say, “I know this is science, but it’s really not that complicated. See I can talk about it with everyday language.”

Affection for Material. Nature writers live by this credo, and convey a sense of affection, awe, and respect for the subject of their investigations. It is more than conveying information: it is an attitude, a point of view, a deeply personal relationship to the life-forms, processes, and material they explain.

Grounding the Concept in the Familiar. Writers, as they compose, are constantly self-prompting, provoking ourselves to think through our material – and a central prompt is, “What is this (idea, situation, feeling, process) like?” what familiar image or story can I use to ground it; how do I connect the new to the known?

Strategic Self-Disclosure. The inclusion of personal testimony can backfire and seem self-involved and digressive. But if the disclosure is relevant to the topic (and well told), readers typically appreciate it; testimony established the writer’s credibility and authenticity.

To learn more about Minds Made for Stories, visit

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