Monday, December 23, 2013

Extras: Do They Add? or Are They Bad?

Recently I was copied on an email sent from a well-known nonfiction author to other nonfiction writers.  The author was wondering about how to deal with an editor who was suggesting the addition of lots of "extras" to the book she was writing. These extras could be videos linked to an e-book, sidebars or "fun facts," photographs and illustrations, graphs, charts, tables, and more.

Now those of us who teach may already be aware of the research that says that "extras" that distract readers attention from the main idea of a text do affect comprehension...and not in a good way. Kids may begin to believe that the interesting facts offered are, in fact, the main idea. After all, look how interesting they are! They must be important.

Here's what I think. When all the nonfiction features are working together in a supportive way, then that constitutes excellent nonfiction. Check out Locomotive, the best example I know of how nonfiction features support each other. That is, the main idea, structure, style, integration of visual information, and disciplinary thinking are mutually supportive. An excellent text doesn't need extraneous extras to amuse and excite readers. It's already engaging enough. 

Don't get me wrong. I am not against extras. I am only against extras that distract readers and don't help them build understanding of the main idea of a book.  And, I am finding it very encouraging that writers and teachers are coming to the same conclusion. That's probably because good writers don't need distracting extras because they write so well that their writing both informs and holds our interest.

So, I am thinking that when we look as "extras," we ought to ask: Does that feature support the main idea of the book or does it distract from its message? Such a simple question just might yield surprising answers. 



  1. photos, illustrations, charts, graphs, sidebars - those aren't "extras". They are "part" of the story and contain important info, too. They also allow (at least in magazines and newspaper) the "main article" to present major ideas without getting too lengthy. My kids have never found them "distracting" - instead, they've said "but wait! there's more!" And a good illustration or photo (plus caption) conveys a lot of information that mere words cannot. Graphs, too - you need to see that spatial arrangement of information sometimes.

    1. Sue,
      I am not against these features. They are essential elements of nonfiction. I am simply saying that they need to be supportive of the main idea of the text.

  2. I think I would put illustrations/photographs in a different category than sidebars and graphics because illustrations/photographs are now an integral element in nonfiction and just as important as the text. It didn't used to be that way, as is easy to tell if you go back and read a children's nonfiction book from the 1960s. Or look at old National Geographics and compare how text-heavy they were compared to recent articles. But I agree that the use of sidebars and graphics must be judicious. In my latest book THE DOLPHINS OF SHARK BAY I didn't use any sidebars at all, and only three graphics (one is a map). I had hoped to include extensive back matter but ran out of space--the economics of full color printing limited the book to 80 pages. So I put some of the extra material on my website. And instead of listing the 40-50 scientific references that made up my bibliography I referred the reader to the "Publications" page of the scientist's website. I'm guessing we're going to see more and more of this in the future. How do you feel about authors using internet links for information that might have been sidebar or back matter material? Is this a good or bad idea?

  3. I think it's a wonderful idea for authors to include Internet links. Many times readers want to know more. Teachers, too, would find the extra material useful when planning lessons. In the beginning of Candace Fleming's book on Amelia Earhart, she gives readers a link to a website showing how difficult it is to see Howland Island from the air. This is where Amelia was supposed to refuel. Many readers use the link and it does help them understand the text. I can imagine many other helpful links.