Children's Writer Group Newsletter 2003 (Issue #2) TOPIC: Know your audience!
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Know Your Audience
Children are people, too. As my mom used to say, they are born with all the brain power they’re likely to have; all they’re lacking is education and experience. In short, they’re not dumb. So the first thing to keep in mind when writing for children is this: Don’t talk down to them. They’re likely to become bored quickly and think the author is the “dumb” one.
Get to know your readers. Start with the children in your own family, your friends’ kids, and their friends. Volunteer at your local library, school, or church. Observe and interact with the kids. Hone your listening skills! If you are a parent, or teacher, try not to let your writing be too influenced by any grown-up “judgment.” What do kids talk about? What issues are important to them? What do they read? What kinds of shows do they enjoy watching on TV? How can your writing compete with all that sound, silliness, and color? How can you reach your readers without preaching to them?
I’ve read a lot of “children’s stories” here on Writing.com that are more about children than for children. Cute anecdotes, for the most part, but they are aimed at the adult reader. Write what a child wants to read. Get to eye level with your audience and write from their point of view.
Think back to when you were a child. If you are writing for the pre-teen age group, try mentally reliving some of the moments from your own pre-teen years. Never mind that the adult you thinks you have a great story to tell. What does the twelve-year-old in you think of it?
Read the books your readers read. What makes them successful books? Why do kids like them? What is it about Harry Potter that makes it so wildly popular with all ages?
“User testing” is a concept borrowed from programming and product manufacturing, but it’s worthwhile for writers, too. You do that when you post your writing on Writing.com. But are your readers here the same readers in your target age group? Go back to those kids in your family, your friends’ kids, and their friends - ask them to read your story and be totally candid with you about what works and what doesn’t. Make sure they understand that you mean it - that you’re not looking for kindness or flattery, and that by telling you honestly what they like or dislike, they may be able to help you to become a published author. Promise them an autographed copy of the book, should it ever make it into print! With some kids, this is a sneaky but effective way to learn if they would even want to own the book.
Captivate the Reader Quickly
Not all kids have short attention spans. But just about every child I’ve known has a low boredom threshold. To write a successful children’s story, you need to catch and hold their interest. “Once upon a time…” doesn’t cut it these days. If you start with action, you’ll stand a much better chance of captivating the young reader and holding his interest. You can literally start with a “Bang!”
Whatever you do, avoid clichés and stereotypes. Young readers are too savvy for this. General principles of good writing apply double for children’s literature.
Avoid being “preachy.” I don’t care if your story is a lesson about God’s love, you don’t have to shove the message down the child’s throat with every sentence. Let the action, the characters, the story itself unfold to demonstrate God’s love. Want to write a story with a moral? What to use it as a teaching tool? Again, slip the message in through action, dialogue, believable characters, relevant situations - be clear, but subtle. Entertain as you teach.
Challenge Your Readers - But Not All at Once
Use language that speaks to your readers. Outdated expressions and hard, overly academic words will lose that attention you so carefully grabbed and are so desperate to hang onto. Don’t ditch all the “hard words,” though. An occasional challenge is fine; I can’t tell you how many early reader books I’ve seen with “she exclaimed” as a dialogue tag. “Exclaimed”? For a four year old? Well, why not? I was just entering First Grade when I asked my dad, “What’s the longest word in the English language?” He told me it was
“antidisestablishmentarianism.” I insisted that he teach me to spell it, just so I could show off. He insisted that I learn its meaning, as well, so I wouldn’t be merely “showing off.” Learning new words is fun for most kids. Just don’t overload your reader all at once, and be sure to explain or provide plenty of context clues to meaning when introducing new vocabulary. In general, keep the language appropriate for the age and educational background of your target audience.
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Featured Stories and Poems for Children
These are all entries in the many contests we sponsored this month! Winning entries on top.
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Writing.com Resources for Children’s Writers
Creative Sparks & Inspirations
Write something silly! Try a silly character, setting or plot. The sky's the limit! IF YOU try this prompt, please submit what you write in the submission forum listed below and you could see it featured here next month!
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