Many new authors are keen to write for children. What’s not to love about a good children’s book? They’re exciting, visually appealing and often relatively short – so the process of writing doesn’t feel quite so daunting. That’s great, but there are a few insider tips you need to know before you start work. It’s harder than it looks, but if you follow these simple rules you won’t go too far wrong.
[Note: We tend to publish books for children aged 6+, so the advice here is aimed at chapter books / collections of short stories]
- Know your audience before you start
What age group are you writing for? This matters more than anything else. The number one problem for new children’s book authors is pitching their material at the intended audience. There’s a huge difference between writing for a 6-year-old and writing for a 14-year-old. The subject material, structure, characters…everything changes depending on who it’s aimed at.
We publish books with colour illustrations, but not full picture books. Because we’re publishing chapter books, we don’t tend to publish much below 4,000 words (otherwise they end up being a little short). As a general rule, don’t go much above 10,000 words if your book is aimed at primary school ages, whilst books aimed at teenagers can be up to 40,000 words.
Keep your readers firmly in mind whenever you’re putting pen to paper or typing away at your keyboard.
- A simple plan
Who are your characters? Where is it set? What happens in your story, and when? How are you going to build tension?
Think of it like a journey. You have a destination to get to, but make sure that you’ve programmed your sat-nav and know what route you’re taking before you start. If you get lost along the way, it’ll be obvious to the reader. You don’t need to plan every single detail, but you should at the very least know what is going to happen in each chapter.
- Know your high-frequency words
Some words are very important in the English language because you see them over and over again. A young child, who’s not been reading for very long, might struggle to read words like aardvark or rhythm. It’s not about length. A longer word like accidentally is a more common word, and you’d expect Y3/Y4 (age 8-9) to know it.
One great resource is the Times Education supplement with the top thousand high-frequency words. Try not to use too many unusual or difficult words. If a child doesn’t understand one word in a sentence, they have some chance of working it out from the rest of the sentence – or maybe it doesn’t matter. If they don’t understand three words in the same sentence, they’re likely to get a bit frustrated and maybe stop reading.
Microsoft Word has tools to check the “readability” of your document. That’s a very simple way of checking whether your writing is likely to be understood by the age group you’re writing for.
- Strong, distinct characters
Each character should be interesting. They need to be very different from each other to avoid confusion. You’re trying to develop an emotional connection between your characters and the child who’s reading about them. Don’t go over the top, but do understand that in a short book there isn’t a lot of time for detailed character development. Make sure that your characters are strong and easy to understand.
- Avoid complex sentences
As adults, we’re used to writing sentences with plenty of brackets and sub-clauses. A sentence might end up being a few lines long, and the reader has to pay attention to understand it. That’s confusing for children. Keep sentences simple, with just one key idea in the sentence. (If you’re writing for secondary school age, this is less important)
- Don’t be patronising
If your story has a moral, don’t be too in-your-face about it. You know how sauces for children often contain “hidden veg” for those who don’t want to eat their greens? It’s a bit like that. Morals are the Brussels sprouts of children’s books. Keep them hidden.
- Paint the picture, but…
Description is important. Children have vibrant imaginations. You want them to feel that they can picture what’s happening whilst they’re reading your story. Give them the help they need to allow their imagination to go to work. For balance, though, always remember to…
- Keep the plot moving!
Each sentence (particularly for readers up to age 11) should have something happening. In a book aimed at adults, a page of beautiful descriptive writing works well. In a children’s book, you’re trying to weave the description into the story so that there’s action going on whilst they’re building that picture in their mind. If nothing happens for a whole paragraph, your readers might start to get bored. And you definitely don’t want that in a children’s book.
- Cliffhangers are your friend
Angela yawns. She’s just read Chapter 4 of your book, but she’s really sleepy and her mum has told her it’s bedtime. She puts your book down. Is she reluctant to put your book down, desperate to know what happens next? Or is she not actually that bothered?
At the end of each chapter, try to leave some kind of cliffhanger ending. Make sure that your readers want to go back and find out more.
- Get some feedback
Honest feedback is important. The good thing is that many children tend to be very honest about what they like and dislike. Do your market research – test your writing on some actual children, and ask them what they think you could improve.
Adults tend to think we know what children like. Children actually know what they like. Talk to them, listen, and learn from them!
Have fun, enjoy yourself whilst you’re writing – and good luck everyone!