Do's and Don'ts of Writing for Children

In my last post, I talked about five things that are definite to-dos when writing for children. As promised, this time we’ll learn five things that you should never do.

1. Don’t spell out the lesson to be learned. A good children’s story should include some sort of moral or lesson. The trick is not to spell it out but let your reader figure it out for himself. The point you want to get across needs to be woven through the fabric of your story, so your reader can experience it throughout. Don’t just tack a one-liner onto the end, telling the children what they were supposed to have learned.

2. Don’t be preachy. Along those same lines, don’t preach to your child reader or dictate your message to him. Often, writers like to use their story’s authority figures to “lay down the rules” and tell the children in the story what’s expected of them. Instead, allow your message to come through during the normal course of your story’s events, and force your reader to “read between the lines” to discover that message for themselves. They’ll be much more receptive to whatever point you’re trying to make if they stumble upon it instead of being told about it.

3. Don’t underestimate your child reader. Kids are smart! Don’t worry about using terminology that may be a bit challenging or concepts that might be outside their area of current discovery. Just be careful not to go overboard with it. There’s a fine balance between challenge and frustration. Allow children to connect their own dots as they read, and don’t feel you have to hand over all the information to them. Let them dig a little and use their brains!

4. Don’t write the same for girls and boys. Generally speaking, your girl reader will gravitate toward different material than your boy reader.  Girls are typically more interested in relationships, dialogue, and emotions, where boys need to have action, intrigue, and facts. This is not to say that you can’t write about similar topics for girls and boys, but you should approach your story quite differently depending on your target audience.

So, if you’re writing about an alien invasion for boys, sprinkle in lots of scientific facts about the aliens and their planet, include plenty of chase scenes, and keep dialogue to a minimum (maybe just grunting sounds). If you’re doing the same story for girls, have the aliens befriend some humans so you can have dialogue and emotion. If you need to capture the attention of both genders, be sure to include enough elements from each side of the spectrum to keep everyone happy!

5. Don’t give pat answers. A good children’s story, whether for a preschooler or a teen, will include a strong conflict and resolution. Be sure your resolution isn’t cliche or something trite just to get you out of the story. Even a three-year-old will see through that. The problems kids face today are complex,  seldom with easy answers. Help them think through solutions, and to even be okay with problems that may not have a definite answer. You’ll be doing them a great service in the long run if you do.

If you have a desire to write for children but don’t know where to start, I highly recommend the correspondence course through the Institute of Children’s Literature. It is very thorough with individualized instruction provided by exceptional children’s authors and editors.

Writing for children is certainly multi-faceted. There’s probably almost as much to remember not to do as there is to do! Today we’ll look at some of the top things you need to remember whenever you write for children. On my next post, I’ll tackle 5 things you should never do when writing for children.

First, the must-dos:

1. Clearly identify the market and age you are writing for. There are  board books, picture books, activities books, chapter books, young adult novels, graphic novels, and more. It’s critical to keep a clear focus of what exactly you are writing, and therefore, the age you are targeting. Learn the typical word count or page count for what you want to write once you select your market.

2. Read everything you can for the age and market you have selected. Find out what current children’s authors are writing. Learn the style, tone, wording, and topics of what publishers are looking for. Additionally, ask children what they are reading. What works for them and what doesn’t. I guarantee they will not be shy in telling you! Reading what you want to write will help you enormously in the long run.

3. Carefully choose the ages of your characters. It’s best to have your main characters a couple years older than the age of your reader. Children like to read about other kids a little older than they are. Of course, your main characters can have younger siblings, and it’s OK if your main characters are sometimes the same age of your readers. But, never make your main characters younger than your readers. They will lose interest in a hurry!

4. Let your child characters solve their own problems. It’s tempting to have adult characters come to the rescue when your children get into a dilemma in your story, but resist that urge. Kids want to feel empowered when they read your book–whether it’s a picture  book or a graphic novel. They don’t want to feel like an adult always needs to save them. Allow your child characters to be the heroes.

5. Field test your work on appropriately-aged children. Aside from having your writers’ critique group review your work (and you always should; see my blog post on critique groups to learn why), it’s equally as important to have children the same age as your target market read your work. They will find things in your story, characters, and dialogue that you would probably never see. Even if you’re writing a board book or picture book, sit down with a few children at different times and read your story to them. Note their reactions to different parts (Did they laugh when they were supposed to? Did they laugh when they weren’t supposed to? Did a certain part maybe scare them too much?), then ask what they liked and didn’t like. This is the best way to see if you are on track with your writing.

By the way, if picture books is an area of writing for children that you are either currently pursuing or would like to learn more about, I would highly recommend checking out Nancy I. Sanders website. She is an award-winning children’s author who has many picture books under her belt. She’s great at walking authors through the publishing process.

Remember, next post we’ll discuss what you definitely do NOT want to do when writing for children. Some things may surprise you!