Kids are harsh critics, and while children’s books do make for easy reading, creating reading material that kids will actually enjoy is probably more challenging than you think. Here are a few of the most important things to keep in mind when writing for a young audience.
1. You can’t write unless you read
While this is true for any writing, it’s worth mentioning when it comes to children’s writing because most adults don’t read children’s books unless they have kids of their own.
You might have a burning desire to recreate the sort of stories you enjoyed as a child, but it’s important to realise that kids often derive more enjoyment from stories they can relate to. Go to a library or bookstore and have a look at the most popular kids books and magazines. What sort of topics do they cover? How are they structured? What’s their average length? Why do you think they’re so popular?
This is not to say that you should never write in a different style or that you should follow every trend that comes around, but you should know the market and be aware of how things have changed.
2. Know your age group
Children’s writing can include everything from picture books and easy readers to teen fiction, so it’s important to have a clear age group in mind when you start writing.
The age group you want to write for will affect the complexity of the words you use and even the direction your story takes, as keeping a 6-year-old engaged requires a different use of language and story structure than you’d use for a 12-year-old.
3. Write with a specific goal in mind
You should know what you’re trying to achieve with your story and keep that goal in mind throughout the writing process. Is it meant to be educational or merely entertaining? Is there an underlying theme such as friendship or family? Will it introduce kids to an unfamiliar topic or teach them how to rhyme?
Keep in mind, though, that while it’s good to write with a specific message or theme in mind, you don’t want it to come across as preachy or you’ll alienate your audience.
4. Don’t make it too simple
Although it’s important to keep things clear and easy to follow when writing for children, there’s a fine line between writing clearly and talking down to your audience. Challenge your readers to think and ask questions by giving them all the information they need without over-explaining yourself or spelling everything out in unnecessary detail.
This might sound a bit tricky, but when you know the age group you’re writing for, you’ll usually also have a good understanding of what they’ll be able to comprehend.
5. Keep it short and sweet
In a recent interview with The Guardian, children’s fiction editor Charlie Sheppard says that one of the most common mistakes he sees first time writers make is writing novels that are far too long. If a book is over 60,000 words, says Sheppard, then the chances are it’s too long.
Of course, the right length for your book also depends on the age group you are writing for. A picture book might have just 500 words or less, while a novel for young adults can be much longer, but the gist of his advice is still the same; when writing for children, short and sweet is best.
Want to learn more about writing for a young audience? The Australian College of Journalism’s Certificate in Professional Children’s Writing will introduce you to the key niches within the children’s market, from teen fiction to early readers.