Guest Post: Keeping it Simple — Things to Monitor When Writing for Children

by Rachel Thomas

There are many things to keep in mind when writing books or content for children. Age and skill level will play a very important role when devising your content. You want it to be comprehensible, but not overly loaded with words that are beyond his or her range. Careful planning goes into creating successful reading material and a different perspective is needed during the proofreading of this material. For those who have a range of writing talents, this could be complex at times.

1. Syllables - One of the more important aspects to consider when writing for children is the use of words with extensive syllables. You want to keep this level with what is currently the norm for the age group you are writing for. Simple syllable words can be understood far easier than those containing more. Sometimes, this will mean breaking up the meaning of the word in order to get your point across. Take the word "extensive" for example. It may be difficult for a first or second grader to break down however you can do it by saying, "too much of" or "too much."

2. Sentences - Your sentence structure will need to be simplified as well. On average, most professional writers could create sentences that are between 15 to 30 words. This may be OK for older children in higher grades, but younger children will need less to work with or they could become frustrated. That last sentence was 24 words, for example. For the younger age groups, you may want to reduce your sentences to 10 words or less depending on the age group of your target audience.

3. Paragraphs - The length of the content can drive many to become bored with it. The same is true when writing content for websites. With children, their attentions can be even harder to maintain. Keeping the paragraphs as simple as possible can help keep the flow of reading for a child. Not to mention that paragraphs can be used as stopping places and easier to pick up where someone left off. Each paragraph needs an individual point that the child can assimilate into their brains in order to keep the process fluid.

4. Metaphors and Slang - Try to stay away from metaphors and slang. While dating a book isn't necessarily bad as slang words evolve over time, you want the child to be able to understand the material without having to find a translator. A first-grader shouldn't have to think too deeply about the meaning of the content in order to get something out of it. He or she should immediately have a working knowledge of the content in order to provide a synopsis of what they had read. 

5. Appropriate Material - Could you imagine if Stephen King were to write a children's book while keeping his style of trilling horror? There is a good chance the child would never sleep again. Make sure the material you are creating is appropriate for the age group you are writing for. This may take a little bit of research to find out what children are reading in school these days, but it will help you from turning a pleasant story about a dog and its favorite chew toy into a nightmarish gory tale of the toy chewing on the dog.

6. Vocabulary - Not every age group has mastered the same words. You don't want to fill a book with words that the child hasn't had a chance to learn yet. However, you could produce a story with words above the target audience's age range in order to develop a primer for the future. While this may be a good idea to some, it may be too much for specific children to wrap their minds around. Like stated above, a child shouldn't have to dwell too long on a word in order to understand the meaning.

7. Closure -  One thing that some writers don't consider when developing material for children is the need for closure. It doesn't have to be a complex ending to the book, but you should end the story without leaving the child wondering where the rest of the pages are.

Keeping the language as simple as possible regarding the target audience's age group is a priority. You want the child to obtain something from the story through the use of the words provided. Any content can be leveled down as long as it's a simple to read text. You don't have to enroll in child psychology, but understanding your target audience is paramount in any content writing.


Author Bio:

Rachel is an ex-babysitting pro as well as a professional writer and blogger. She is a graduate from Iowa State University and currently writes for She welcomes questions/comments which can be sent to


7 Things Editors at Children’s Book Publishers Wish Writers Knew

Want to impress an editor?  Then heed this advice…


I have tremendous respect for editors at children's book publishers.  It's a grueling job to wade through a pile of manuscripts looking for that elusive gem. And it can't be much fun seeing the same mistakes made again and again by aspiring writers. I know lots of editors who would love to issue proclamations such as, "Don't even think about sending me your work until you understand the difference between 'your' and 'you're'." But editors are, by and large, very nice people who wouldn't dream of being so rude. So I'll do the job for them. Here are seven things that, I'm willing to bet, editors at children's book publishers would wish more writers knew:

1) Please learn to punctuate. A misplaced comma or two won't prevent you from getting published (children's book publishers do have people on staff who correct those things), but if your manuscript is riddled with typos, it gives a bad first impression. To me, the most egregious offense is poor punctuation. It's easy to gloss over a misspelled word when reading a manuscript for the first time, but inappropriate semicolons or dialogue with all the quotation marks in the wrong place ruins the flow of the story. If you're not absolutely sure of your punctuation skills, have someone else proof your manuscript before you send it out.

2) Don't rhyme unless you have to. Many authors think picture books equal rhyming stories. The problem is that most people can't write very well in rhyme. The rhyming format should be the last thing you think about— first comes the character development, then the plot, then the pacing and tightly-written text. If all that's in place, then you can overlay the rhyme, without adding any extra, unnecessary details to the story. Only tell a story in rhyme if it's absolutely the best way— the only way— it can be told.

3) Only develop ideas worth a publisher's investment. Did you know it costs a major children's book publisher over $100,000 to get a picture book from manuscript to the book store? Is your idea worth that much of a risk? Novels cost less to produce (no color illustrations) but the market is smaller. Books that are simply cute, sweet, informative, or teach an important lesson don't do enough to justify the publisher's financial risk. Manuscripts need to do more than one thing. So develop ideas that are funny and teach science concepts, or are multicultural, entertaining, and illustrate an important life lesson without preaching to the reader.

4) Pay attention to established age groups and word counts. Once you're famous, you can break all the rules you want. In the meantime, you need to write within established guidelines so editors can visualize exactly where your book would fit on their list, and (more importantly) how their sales reps would pitch it to a book store. Don't submit a 3000 word picture book for ages 3-6. It simply won't fit into 32 pages with illustrations. Don't write a 15-chapter easy reader. Most second graders will be intimidated by a book that long. Be creative with your story, not its format.

5) If you're writing for older readers, understand the distinction between middle grade and young adult. Read several novels for ages 8-12, and for ages 12 and up, so you can begin to see the difference in characters and conflicts for the two age groups. Very often beginning writers think they're writing YA, but they've actually created a middle grade novel with 15-year-old characters. And do incorporate subplots into your story. These books need to have several layers— some emotional, some action-driven— that all work together to build the plot.

6) If your story is very personal and specific to your life/family, consider self-publishing. For your life to be interesting to a wide audience, you must be willing to sacrifice the facts when necessary to make good fiction. The incidents need a universal theme that's relevant to many children. If you have your heart set on writing a book about all the funny, mischievous things your kids and pets did when they were little, and you don't want to alter any events to create a solid, unique plot, then self-publish a few copies at your local copy shop (or an online site like CreateSpace) and give them to family members at the next reunion. Your book will be treasured by the people who will appreciate it the most.

7) Don't think you can abandon logic just because you're writing for children. Several years ago, I worked with a writer who was creating a middle grade fantasy set in the distant past, and yet one of his characters had a few modern-day items in his bedroom. I explained that, even though the book was fantasy, 21st century devices couldn't exist if he clearly stated the story happened long ago. "Kids aren't going to care," was his response. But they will. Even picture book readers will wonder why your spider character carries a life-sized baseball in his pocket. And then your credibility as an author is shot. If you maintain logic in the details, you can get away with a far greater suspension of disbelief in the story. And a story that's a delight to believe is what editors at children's book publishers wish for most of all.


Using Slang in Children’s Books

If someone told you to "fade", would you ignore them or guard your wallet? The answer depends not just on who is doing the talking, but when. Joe College in the early 1930's use the term to mean "to leave"; a 1940's zoot-suiter "faded" by covering a bet; it meant "to ignore" in the 1980's hip-hip vernacular; and the youth of the 1990's said something was "fade" when it crimped their style. Simple words–fade, sweet, lamp, dig and cut, to name just a few–change dramatically when incorporated into the slang of each generation. Usually the meanings have nothing to do with the literal definitions of the terms.

So how much of this colorful verbiage should you use in your writing? Slang immediately dates a book, but that's not necessarily bad. Certain words are closely identified with different eras of American history, so slang can place the story quickly into a specific decade. The way a character talks provides a window for the reader into that character's personality, as well as his age and social class. And since slang originates from the youth culture of the time, the words themselves help portray the prevailing attitudes of teens and young adults. Finally, slang can be fun and interesting to read.
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How to Write a Book That Will Surprise Young Readers

Have you seen the movie Being John Malkovich?

It's the story of a forlorn puppeteer played by John Cusack, who works as a file clerk on floor seven and a half of a Manhattan office building. When he steps off the elevator he has to bend over, because the ceiling is only about five feet high. None of the characters seem to notice–this is their everyday world, and they go about their jobs no differently than if they could stand upright. But to the audience, the visual device of a building with half a storey signals there is something slightly off-kilter about this particular universe. And once we enter, it's perfectly logical that the puppeteer will eventually find a metaphysical portal into the brain of actor John Malkovich.

Writers of fantasy and science fiction have long known that the success of their stories largely depends on how much imagination and detail they invest in their settings. Readers willingly suspend their disbelief and enter a world of magic, time travel and talking animals because that world clearly exists independently of our own. But why can't more everyday, earthly stories do the same thing? A tweak of the environment can spin an ordinary plot in an unexpected direction.

The trick is to create a place that's just a bit off-center, so the reader knows it's the real world, only a tad exaggerated. It's like viewing your story through a funhouse mirror–some elements being wider and rounder than in real life, others elongated and skinny. And because the characters know only this universe, none ever question its shape. Read more


Great Advice From Legendary Children’s Book Authors

As we celebrated the recent 23rd Anniversary of the Children's Book Insider newsletter, we took the opportunity to look back at some of the many author interviews we've presented.  What caught our eye was some of the priceless advice these authors shared with our readers. Here are two quick — but powerful — lessons from our archives:


Judy Blume on writing from the heart (August 1990): What happened when I first started–as in Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret, which is the first book that was really mine–is I was just telling the stories that I knew. I knew what it was like to be in sixth grade, and to be in Margaret's body, because that was my body. Slow growing, slow to develop….So that's what I wrote about, because it wasn't there for me when I was young. I didn't know if anyone would publish it, but it was from the heart. The only thing that works with writing is that you care so passionately about it yourself, that you make someone else care passionately about it. Books that are written to order are awful. It can't work. Children will see through that and they won't read it.




Barbara Seuling on common mistakes (December 1994): The main character is a big one. So often beginning writers will use boy and girl twins as the main character, or use more than one main character, such as a pair of boys going off to have an adventure and you can't pick out which one is the hero of the story. There should be one viewpoint to the book, and this rule hasn't changed since children's books first began. You can occasionally get away with it if you shift the focus to another character when you start a new chapter, but you have to do this very carefully. Point of view is another one. I always feel you should know how to use point of view so you can break the rules.

There are a lot of cases where the rules of point of view are broken very successfully, such as in Charlotte's Web. You can bend the rules but you have to be as good as E.B. White to do it. There are two ways to approach talking animal characters. The big differentiation depends on the story. Either the animals have to truly be animals, or they are really kids that happen to look like animals. If you're writing a story that just needs a substitute child, then you can decide if it's a soft furry animal or a funny-looking animal. It's funny to see a pig in children's clothes, but they always have some pig-like characteristic, such as a large appetite. If you're writing that kind of story, then it's fine to have the animal act like humans.

In a book like Charlotte's Web the animals were very true to their natures, and it was important that they were. Even Templeton the rat was not a sympathetic character. In a story where you're getting close to the animal world, you need to keep animals as true to their natural selves as possible. What you don't want is the animals doing animal-like things part of the time when it's convenient to the story, but then at other times have hands or stand upright to talk to each other. That never works.

To read these — and many  more — CBI interviews in their entirety, check out In Their Own Words: The Best of CBI's Interviews


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