This is adapted from chapter 16 of You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers. The full book is available for the Kindle, in paperback, or in Large Print paperback.
Writing for children is different from writing for adults in a few important ways. One issue is the need to consider reading level. The grade level or reading level needs to fit the audience. Most fifth-graders cannot read material written at a high school level. This means a story aimed at elementary children can look quite different from one aimed at teenagers.
If you are using Microsoft Word, you can get an idea of the grade level of your work. It’s simply a matter of having grammar check turned on along with spell check. Search for “readability” in the Help menu for instructions. You can check a complete story or article, a paragraph, or even a single sentence.
This is a great way to explore how changing your wording changes your reading level. Write a paragraph and check the grade level. Then edit the paragraph and check the grade level again. In general, simpler vocabulary and shorter sentences will make the reading level lower. Play with the language to see if you can simplify it even more. Do this over and over, and see how things change.
Let’s try an example. Here’s a made-up sentence for an imaginary fantasy story:
She barreled down the lengthy hallway, staggering to a stop in the rotunda, where an enormous mythical creature was ascending from a gaping chasm.
A lot is wrong with that sentence, including too much action packed into two lines. The main point for this example is that it comes out at a 12.9 reading level. (That’s means it’s appropriate for the ninth month of 12th grade.) Let’s try to simplify it. First, I’ll simply break it into two sentences:
She barreled down the lengthy hallway and staggered to a stop in the rotunda. An enormous mythical creature was ascending from a gaping chasm.
That brought it down to an 7.7 grade level. The first sentence is at a 6.7 reading level, and the second sentence is at 9.5. That’s fine for a young adult novel, and probably all right for a middle grade novel, so long as the entire book isn’t written at such a high level. But what if the target audience is younger, or you simply want to make sure that even weaker readers will be able to follow your plot? Let’s try some more changes.
She barreled down the long hallway. In a large, circular hall, she staggered to a stop. A giant mythical creature was rising from a gaping crack in the ground.
Overall, that’s now at a 4.4 reading level. The first two sentences are easy enough for early middle grade, or even upper elementary. In the last sentence, replacing enormous, ascending, and chasm with simpler words brought it down to a 6.7 grade level. It’s a few words longer than the previous version, but crack in the ground is easier than chasm. I tried replacing mythical with fairytale, but that didn’t change the grade level. Replacing creature with animal made it worse.
Of course, maybe I could figure out what kind of mythical creature it is, and name it or describe it in simple detail. That would not only get rid of the challenging words, but would also create a clearer picture.
Worrying about reading level might sound restrictive, but in reality, simpler writing is often clearer, and therefore more effective. Trying to find a simpler way of saying things can often encourage you to choose more vivid and precise language.
You don’t need to mention the grade level when you submit work, unless the publisher specifically asks for it. Publishers don’t usually care about the computerized grade level, unless books are targeted at the school and library market. Still, checking your grade level is a good way to get an idea of the complexity of your work. If you are trying to write stories for middle grade children, but your writing is coming out at a college grade level, you may have a problem.
Of course, regardless of your readership age, you want your stories and articles to be fun and engaging. This usually means straightforward language and relatively simple sentences. Forget the dry, academic language you may have learned in college or on the job. Look for lively, active verbs, language that paints a clear picture, and a good mix of action and dialogue, with just enough description to set the scene. In addition, try to keep your sentences short and simple, but with enough variety that the story does not sound clunky. Reading the work aloud is a good way to check this.
Another great exercise is retyping a published story, article, picture book, or a few pages of a novel. By typing the words yourself, you get a feel for appropriate language for that audience. For a picture book, you also get to see how the story would look in manuscript format, without illustrations and page breaks.
You can also use the Children’s Writer’s Word Book to check which words are at what reading level, and to find suggestions for alternatives.
There’s another advantage to keeping your writing relatively simple. One of the keys to writing well for children is writing “tight,” with no unnecessary words. Most magazines have a limit on the length of story or article they will accept, and often the word count can’t be very high. You need to pack a lot into a small space. You’ll have more flexibility with novels, but the pacing should still feel fast. Tight writing is typically more interesting and fun to read. Try to say things in the fewest words possible, as long as you can still be clear and interesting. That will keep your story moving, and often help your grade level suit the audience as well.
You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers is available for the Kindle, in paperback, or in Large Print paperback.
Chris Eboch is the author of over 50 books for children, including nonfiction and fiction, early reader through teen. Her novels for ages nine and up include The Eyes of Pharaoh, a mystery in ancient Egypt; The Well of Sacrifice, a Mayan adventure; The Genie’s Gift, a middle eastern fantasy; and the Haunted series, about kids who travel with a ghost hunter TV show, which starts with The Ghost on the Stairs. Her writing craft books include You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers, and Advanced Plotting.
Learn more at https://chriseboch.com/ or her Amazon page, or check out her writing tips at her Write Like a Pro! blog.
Chris also writes for adults under the name Kris Bock. Kris Bock writes action-packed romantic suspense involving outdoor adventures amidst Southwestern landscapes. The Mad Monk’s Treasure follows a treasure hunt in New Mexico. Whispers in the Dark involves intrigue among ancient Southwest ruins. Counterfeits starts a series about art theft. What We Found is a mystery with romantic elements about a young woman who finds a murder victim in the woods. Read excerpts at www.krisbock.com or visit her Amazon page.