My Path to Nonfiction (AKA, When What You Think You Want to Write and What You’re Good at Writing are Not the Same Thing)

Oct 5, 2023 | For Beginners, Inspiration, Nonfiction

When you first decided that you wanted to write for kids, what did you imagine yourself writing? Picture books? Middle grade? YA? And would it be fiction or nonfiction, or informational fiction? Some people know exactly what they want to write. Others come it after some thought (or rejection—which is always a good way to learn in this business.)

Seriously, though, sometimes what you think you want to write and what you’re actually good at writing are not the same thing. That’s why my recommendation for new writers is to discover your path and follow it!

Let me give you an example, I started my career thinking that I would write fiction picture books. It was an interesting choice for me, since I rarely read picture books as a child, and hadn’t read them much except to my children when they were small. But I figured, I could do it. I mean how hard could they be (Remember, I was just starting out.)

My problem was that the “voice in my head” (the writerly kind) is about 9 years old. As I worked on my first picture books, I soon discovered that my older voice was not the best at writing books that required a small word count. I wanted to use big words, long descriptions, and address larger topics. None of these make for the best picture books. After receiving many, many, many not-so-great critiques, I had no idea what to do.

Thankfully, at my second SCBWI conference my writing life took a fateful turn. I met the late, great Elaine Landau. During the critique for my WIP (a fiction picture book) she asked me, “Do you do anything else?”  (That is not exactly something you want to hear from your critique…)

That was the question that changed my life.

I told her that I had just earned my master’s degree in K-8 science education and gotten a job as a middle school science instructor. Her response, “Why don’t you write science books for kids?”   It made sense. After all, I was that kid who had started a science club in her garage at the age of 7.

I’d never before considered writing nonfiction science books for kids. But I thought, well, what did I have to lose? I mean, clearly my fiction picture books weren’t going anywhere soon.

So, I sent out a work-for-hire package and two months later, out of the blue, I got a call from an editor at Capstone Press offering me a two-book deal to write books about bugs. The next month I received a 5-book deal from a book packager. I was off! That was in 2010.

Author Jennifer Swanson with a stack of her booksSince then, I have written almost 50 nonfiction books for kids. Many of them are about science, but I have also written a biography, a few history books, and just last year a nonfiction picture book. I love nonfiction! But I also never thought I’d be here, making a living at writing nonfiction.

What happened to my fiction? I still write it. I have completed three middle grade novels. None are published. Yet. But I am working hard on them.

In between, there have been LOTS of rejections.

There have been LOTS of joys.

There have been some setbacks and frustrations.

But my motto is from Winston Churchill:




So how do you find your path?

  • Allow yourself to think outside the box.
  • Consider writing about things you loved as a kid.
  • Re-imagine yourself.
  • Listen to that “voice inside your head.”
  • Write all you can, wherever you can.
  • Simply: lose yourself in words.

If you hit a roadblock:

go through it

around it

over it

under it

but whatever you do,

DON’T let it stop you.

Follow your path… wherever it leads.

You may just surprise yourself.


Thank you to our faculty for this Guest Post!

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