Monday, June 1, 2015

Five Reasons Why Back Matter Matters in Nonfiction by Pat Miller

What is back matter, and why is it important, even required by many publishers?

Back matter is the information provided by the author after the main text. It can make the topic of the book more clear, more relevant, or more applicable for the reader. Editors and many readers often read nonfiction from the back first, to gain an idea of the author's credibility, sources, and effort to provide more for the reader. 

If you are a writer, you will select those features that fit your work. You will be constrained by the page count, so factor that in when you are writing. Here are five reasons back matter is important in a nonfiction work.

1. It provides information unrelated to the text. (Timeline, Author's Note)


The timeline in At Home in Her Tomb: Lady Dai and the Ancient Chinese Treasures of Mawangdui by Christine Liu-Perkins shows key events at points on a linear timeline. The timeline in Wangari Maathai: The Woman Who Planted Millions of Trees by Franck Pr√©vot is more anecdotal by year, with few specific dates.

For The Hole Story of the Doughnut, I had more than 200 pages of research about Captain Hanson Gregory. But the book's 800 words left out most of it. My author’s note includes information about his registration for the Union Army, his five daughters, the challenge to his claim as inventor and its resolution, his honor from the American Baker’s Association, and the replacement of his lost headstone and the ensuing celebration, all of which didn't fit the main story of the text.

2. To further explain something related to the text. (Further Information, Afterword) 


In The House That George Built, Suzanne Slade explains many of the changes to the President's House since its early days, including its name. Teddy Roosevelt added a tennis court, and William Taft converted the stables into a four car garage. Barack Obama planted a vegetable garden on the south lawn.


The Afterword in Little Melba and Her Big Trombone by Katheryn Russell-Brown gives further details about the bands and places Melba Liston played, and the honors she won--details not given in the text.                                                                                                  
Irena Sendler saved the lives of nearly 400 Polish children during the Holocaust. The Afterword to Irena Sendler and the Children of the Warsaw Ghetto explains what happened to Irena and many of those children after World War II.


Mesmerized: How Ben Franklin Solved a Mystery that Baffled All of France tells how Dr. Mesmer has the French believing that he can control a mysterious force streaming from the stars and use it to compel grown men to cry, women to swoon, and children to fall down in fits. Dr. Franklin uses the scientific method to debunk Mesmer's claims, making for an embarrassing departure for the hypnotic Dr. Mesmer. This true story is followed by three pages explaining the science behind both doctors' endeavors.

3. To explain how or where the information was obtained. (Source Notes)

Source notes are like footnotes provided in longer works. In The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion and the Fall of Imperial Russia, Candace Fleming provides 21 pages of notes that give the source for each of the quotations included in the book. 

Christine Liu-Perkins also documented the quotes used in her book about Lady Dai. Footnote numbers are no longer used in children's works. Instead, the first few words of the quotation are listed by chapter and page, and then the source is listed.




4. To provide extra materials of help to the reader. (Further Reading, Map, Glossary, Index, Educational Activities) 

In the back matter, Melissa Stewart and Allen Young provided a list of things readers can do to live in a way that decreases their impact on the natural world in No Monkeys, No Chocolate.  







Because Capital Days: Michael Shiner's Journal and the Growth of Our Nation's Capital is based on the actual writings of a freedman who worked in the Washington Navy Yard through the inauguration of eleven presidents, the words are from centuries ago. Words like coffle, manumit, and cut up shines are no longer used, so they are defined in a glossary.








In A Chameleon's Life by Ellen Lawrence, students are encouraged to be a reptile scientist by writing a report that compares a panther chameleon to a reptile of their choice. It provides sources and questions to help with the research.  





5. To provide credibility for your work. (Acknowledgments, Bibliography or Resources, Image Credits)

The Resource list in Irena Sendler and the Children of the Warsaw Ghetto by Susan Goldman Rubin is extensive, though the story is only 36 pages long, half of them full page illustrations. It includes seven books, several translated from Polish; eleven articles from magazines, newspapers, and The Encyclopedia of the Holocaust; two videos; the written or recorded testimony of Irena herself and other Poles; stories unpublished in English; and correspondence between the author and Polish experts. Rubin is definitely a credible author.

Editors, teachers, and savvy readers will often scan the back matter to see why the author is qualified to write this book. How does one know the information is accurate? In The Hole Story of the Doughnut, I thank seven people in the Acknowledgments, including researchers and historians at various maritime locations and libraries. My Selected Bibliography includes twelve resources. Publishers prefer primary sources. Next in importance are secondary sources from newspapers, experts, or well-respected institutions, whether in print or online.

As a writer, the back matter will add value and information for your reader, and give you additional ways to bring your subject to life. And that matters!

32 comments:

  1. Great stuff on back matter! Thanks for organizing this info, Pat!

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    1. You're welcome. I'm finding back matter in adult nonfiction to be very helpful when doing research. Love those obscure footnote references that lead me right to what I need!

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  2. Pat...this is an incredible post! Thank you so much for the details of why back matter is important. I LOVE the examples you gave...they made it so much easier to visualize how I can apply this to each of my nonfiction manuscripts. ;)

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    1. I photographed all the back matter exemplars, but the photos weren't post-worthy. I hope you'll check out these books and see all the interesting ways authors handle all the bonus material in the back.

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  3. Pat wonderful job giving examples and reasons for back matter. Thank you so much for the information.

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  4. Great post, Pat, for those of us putting together the back matter and what type to included for our NFPBs. You used a great set of mentor texts to share the info, too/

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    1. Thanks, Kathy. Hope you find them helpful to your work.

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  5. Great points and examples. Thank you, Pat!

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  6. I love this article...so helpful and needed for those of us who write non-fiction or historical fiction...both of which require accuracy. Thanks.

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    1. You're right. Candace Fleming's book Papa's Mechanical Fish has an interesting author's note. She shows the photo of a homemade submarine that was excavated when a canal was dug--and that led her to find out the rest of the story. It's historical fiction because she had to fill in a number of gaps.

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  7. Thank you, Pat, for this excellent post about the importance of back matter and how it lends itself to the credibility of the author. Fine examples!

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    1. Thanks, Charlotte. Credibility is king (queen) and editors want to make sure the facts are backed by solid research. It's what we owe kids, and it enhances your reputation as a writer.

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  8. It is so nice to have a friend like Pat to confirm what I learned and applied in my last book. Great layout of the various approaches Pat. A keeper of a post for sure.

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    1. Thanks, Damon, for your voice of experience. What was hard for me was to cut down my author note. It originally had a higher word count than the text. :-)

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  9. Great post! I'm going to keep these points handy to compare with my back matter before submitting. Great examples of mentor texts, too. This is a wonderful resource. Thank you!

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    1. You'll never read nonfiction from the front first after you discover all the good stuff in the back. I read the author's note first so I have the framework and "the rest of the story" when I read the text.

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  10. Well organized and chock full of good information. I love deciding on my back matter, but after reading your post, I realized back matter for one of my stories is close to the story's word count. Ooooh, I'll need to rethink that.

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    1. One guideline that might help is "What will they want to know?" instead of "What do I want to tell them?"

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  11. Great article, Pat! Since I'm working on a PB bio right now but since I haven't written the back matter, this is very helpful.

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    1. The author's note is also a great place to stash those amazing facts you MUST share but can't fit into the story. Good luck with your PB!

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  12. Brava!
    As a back matter first reader, also, I devour those pages.
    With today's e-book/digital possibilities teachers & students can touch on links & open up a world of additional information.
    Also, I love it that you included the story about Irene Sendler.
    Thanks for titles new to me, such as the Ben Franklin link debunking Meszmer - new to me. Eager to find that at the library.
    Also, when/where are you next leading a NF workshop Pat?

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    1. The next NF Writing Conference is this September 17-20 in Rosenberg, TX (near Houston). Check it out here: www.patmillerbooks.com/conference.html

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  13. Thanks for these helpful examples, Pat! I, too, have an upcoming project to focus on. Good stuff! And you introduced me to a couple of new PBs.

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    1. I find that PB nonfiction is like potato chips. I cannot read just one! That's why I have a library bag that has wheels on it! Good luck with your NF project.

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  14. Great post, Pat. A good list and great examples. I love back matter... am in the habit of reading books back first, then flip to front.

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    1. The text is like the presents under the tree. The back matter is the bonus goodies in the Christmas stocking. :-)

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  15. Not sure where my first comment went. Wanted to say I loved your choices for books and that we added back matter to Edmund Pickle Chin for just those reasons.

    Thanks for organ izing this so well.

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    1. Great title! Historical fiction and animal fiction often have back matter as well to explain the facts at the core of the story, and to add knowledge for the reader. The Cajuns call it lagniappe--a bonus at no extra charge.

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  16. Thanks for a great post, Pat! Not only did you tell us all of the important reasons for back matter, but you also identified the best places for each type of information. Your comment about editors and first readers often reading the back matter first is a reminder of just how important this information is.

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  17. Pat: Thank you for highlighting the importance and relevance of back matter. You shared many titles that are excellent examples of depicting back matter and how the facts support the story.
    ~Suzy

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