I’m a children’s author and a children’s ghostwriter, and I’m always honing my craft. I read lots of books and articles on writing and writing for children in addition to reading lots of books in the genres I write. I also attend workshops and webinars by expert children’s writers and editors.
If you want to write for children, you need to do the work. You need to learn what’s involved.
Below are some of the most important tips for writing a ‘good’ children’s story.
1. Show the way.
Use showing rather than telling. I’m sure you’ve heard this over and over. But this is saying it one more time.
While description and a bit of telling have their place, today’s publishers want you to show the story. The technique for ‘showing’ rather than ‘telling’ is to use your character’s five senses, along with dialogue.
The days of, “See Jane walk down the lane,” are far gone.
Showing allows the reader to connect with the protagonist. The reader is able to feel the protagonist’s pain, joy, fear, or excitement. This motivates the reader to continue reading.
If you’re stuck, and can’t seem to be able to ‘show’ a particular scene, try acting it out. You can also draw on your own experiences, TV, or the movies. Study scenes that convey the ‘showing’ you need to convey.
Telling: Peter felt tired. His book bag felt like it weighed 50 pounds. He had a rough day at school.
Showing: He tugged his book bag back on his shoulder as he dragged himself down the block. I can’t wait to get home. Mr. Preston kept picking on me all day.
2. Use age appropriate words.
Each age group will have its own appropriate words to use. You want to write specifically for the intended age group.
Take a word like “depression”. That will work for 6th graders, but you’d want to use words like:
Sadness for 1st graders
Gloom for 3rd graders
Sorrow for 4th graders
Grief for 5th graders
The boy performed amazing magic. Was it an illusion or real magic?
Illusion will work for the 6th grader, but say you’re writing for a 1st, 2nd, or 3rd grader, then you’ll need to change that word.
According to “Children’s Writer’s Word Book,” You would need to change it to a word such as trick or fake to make it age appropriate for a 3rd grader.
3. Make your characters believable.
Your characters, especially your protagonist, need to create a bond or connection with the reader.
This means the characters need realistic traits. Even the choices your protagonist makes will help define him and create a deeper bond with the reader.
– Does he take the high road to reach his goals, or does he sneak in under the wire?
– Does he create options to choose from, or is he sweep along by the current of the story, grabbing at lifelines for survival? Are his choices a struggle?
– Is he warm and friendly, or is he standoffish?
– Is he ready and willing to help others, or does he prefer not getting involved?
– Is he funny, or is he serious?
You can keep track of your characters’ quirky telltale marks, expressions, behavior patterns, and physical features by noting them on a Character Sheet as they become unveiled.
4. You’ got to have conflict in the story.
A story’s conflict is an obstacle in the road going from point A to point B. The protagonist must figure out a way over, around, under, or through it.
Conflict will drive your story forward and give the reader a reason to stay involved.
Conflict is basically an obstacle between your protagonist and what she wants or needs. It may be a crisis, a desire, a relationship, a move, or other. It can be caused by internal or external factors.
Does overcoming one obstacle/conflict lead to another? Does she have help or is everyone else hindering her efforts?
5. The action needs to be age appropriate.
The rule of thumb for young children’s writing is never prompt or encourage children to do dangerous or inappropriate things.
An example of this would be a child sneaking out of her house while her parents are asleep.
Another example would be creating a scene where the children are playing in the street or playing with matches.
Avoid putting inappropriate ideas into a child’s head.
6. If it’s a picture book, they’ll be illustrations (write appropriately).
Writers sometimes have a hard time writing tight. But with a picture book, this goes into another realm. Illustrations fill in ALL the blanks.
For example, you don’t have to use words to say that Jimmy has light brown hair and blue eyes, or Tommy has black hair and black eyes.
Another example is an old shoe box. The new author may want to say it’s covered with stars and rainbows. This isn’t necessary because the illustrator will SHOW it.
Picture books are a marriage between content and illustrations, kind of a 50/50 deal. Watch for text that an illustration can handle. You don’t have to describe every detail.
7. Watch for head hopping.
Head hopping is changing the point-of-view within the story.
You need to be careful of this when writing for young children since the stories should be told from the main character’s point of view or perspective.
If Joe is my POV character and he looks sad, it wouldn’t be advisable to say:
Noticing his sad face Fran immediately knew Joe was distraught.
This is bringing Fran’s POV into the picture.
You might say: Joe knew Fran would quickly notice his sadness; they were friends for so long.
Or, better yet, you can just use dialogue: “Joe, what’s wrong? You look down.”
The POV must remain with the protagonist when writing for the younger child. (for picture books and chapter books)
8. Find those unneeded and weak words.
Most word processors have the FIND function. Use it to check for weak verbs, “ly” words, “ing” words, and the overuse of words like “was”.
Example: the 50 lb. iron weight sank quickly to the bottom of the pool.
(Of course it would sink quickly – that makes it redundant.)
9. Keep it lean (write tight)
Today’s children’s publishing world is looking for tight writing. Choose your words for their ability to convey strong and distinct actions, create imagery, and move the story forward.
The publishing costs for picture books over 32 pages is beyond what most publishers are willing to spend, so word counts should be under 800 words. This means every word needs to count. Keep in mind that the illustrations will add another layer to the story and fill in the blanks.
When writing fiction for young children, the younger the children, the leaner the writing. This means if you’re writing for toddlers or preschoolers, you should limit your word count to a range of 100 to 250 words.
10. Watch for story consistency, clarity, and flow (and accuracy).
Checking for consistency, clarity, and flow is another must for all writers of fiction. If you’re a children’s writer it’s even more important.
Children need a structured story that’s consistent and easy to understand. And, the story should flow smoothly while moving forward. Each paragraph or chapter should flow into the next.
As for accuracy, this pertains more to historical fiction, children’s therapeutic fiction books, and nonfiction. Check your facts and use them accordingly within your story.
I wrote a historical fiction piece about Rachel Carson for an online learning center. I mentioned that there were bull dozers when she was a child. It turns out the bull dozer wasn’t manufactured until years later.
You’ve got to be careful.
11. Write for the young reader, not for you.
As a new author, you may want to tell the reader everything. You may want to make sure the reader understands exactly what you’re trying to convey.
This is especially tempting if you’re writing a fiction story that conveys information on some kind of disorder – a therapeutic fiction story.
Don’t do it.
Your main goal should be to write an engaging, page turning story that will hopefully enlighten the reader.
You can bring to light whatever obstacle or problem the story deals with and provide some information, but you SHOULDN’T give the young reader information dump.
If you want to give all the symptoms and therapies for a particular disorder, write a nonfiction book, not a fiction one.
I ghost children’s stories for therapists and most of them get it. Although they’re not writers, they understand that a topic needs to be subtly conveyed. You don’t have to hit the young reader over the head to get a message across.
But, there are other authors who decide to champion an issue for children and bulldoze the topic across the pages.
Again, don’t do it.
If you feel strongly about providing more information on a topic, you can always add a “More About XXX” page at the end of the story.
12. Start your story where it should be started.
All too often beginning writers think they must set the scene for their story with extensive details, when all they really need to do is grab the reader’s attention with the first line or paragraph.
Or, the writer may start the story with backstory thinking she needs to bring the reader up to speed before getting into the conflict.
Avoid these mistakes. Start your story by ‘grabbing’ the reader.
One of my favorite opening paragraphs is from “The Talented Clementine” by Sara Pennypacker:
“I have noticed that teachers get exciting confused with boring a lot. But, when my teacher said, ‘Class, we have an exciting project to talk about,’ I listened anyway.”
What grammar school kid isn’t going to relate to this and want to read more?
You want to ‘grab’ the reader.
While there is much, much more to writing for children, these tips are some of the must-know tips.
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