Basic Writing Tips for Children's Writers

By Jill Esbaum

Here are some of the most important points to keep in mind if you want to write for kids:

* Every story must have a central character with a problem that he solves himself. Having a wise parent (or other elder) step in to help is a no-no. Period.

* Begin your story on the day that is different - when life, as your character knows it, is about to change.

* Stick with one viewpoint. For beginning writers, viewpoint can be a tricky beast. Just remember that your story is unfolding through one person's eyes, feelings, thoughts. The third person omniscient voice doesn't work well for kids unless you are a really really talented writer (and if you were, you wouldn't be reading this). :) If your novel is begging to be told from more than one viewpoint, switch at chapter breaks.

* Don't get lost. If you get off track and your storyline is wandering, boil your theme down to a one-sentence summary. Keep it taped to your computer and refer back to it often. Theme is what you're trying to say. Plot is how you choose to say it.

* Show, don't tell. Think of your story as a series of scenes, each of which should reveal character or move the story forward. A scene should come alive for your reader, make her feel as if she's there.

* Develop an ear for "real" dialogue. Don't have your characters talk in stiff, perfect sentences. Real people often speak in fragments and interrupt each other. And keep in mind that what characters do often reveals more than (or even contradicts) what they say. Become a student of body language, then use it in your dialogue tags.

* Use strong, active verbs. Find exactly the right verb to convey your meaning, and you won't need many adverbs. Try writing poetry to hone this skill.

* Be unique. Avoid cliches. Strive for original similes/metaphors, not the first one that pops into your head.

* Be descriptive - but don't get carried away. A few words or lines of description can certainly help set the scene for your reader, but a little goes a long way. Keep things moving. When in doubt, simplify.

* Don't talk down to kids. Resist the urge to preach (even in religious stories). You needn't hit kids over the head with a message. They'll get the point - and appreciate your respect for them - if you're more subtle. However...

* Your main character has to learn or grow or come to some new understanding by the end of the story. Otherwise, what's the point?

* Revision is our friend. When you read a story, it's easy to believe that the author just sat down and wrote it the way you see it. Not true. Stories and books are revised again and again (and again). When I get discouraged (in the midst of my 53rd revision), I look at the Phyllis Whitney quote on my bulletin board: "Good stories are not written. They are rewritten." Learn to look at your own writing with an objective eye. When you think a piece is finished, put it away for a while. When you come back to it weeks later, I guarantee you'll find ways to improve it.

* Target submissions carefully. Research publishers' catalogs to see what kind of books they publish. Make friends with a librarian; both school and public libraries get oodles of catalogs they'll let you study. Invest in a market book like Children's Writer's and Illustrator's Market (ed. by Alice Pope). Follow word count guidelines. Don't shoot yourself in the foot by using colored paper, decorated envelopes, fancy letterheads, funky fonts, etc. And no matter how cute they are, never send photos of your children or dressed-up pets.

* Be prepared to spend years learning your craft, finding your voice. Hey, Rome wasn't built in a day (egad, a cliche!). It may take a while to develop your own style, but nobody else sees the world quite the way you do. A distinctive voice has a much better chance of being published than the same old same old, so don't be afraid to put yourself out there.

* Read. Immerse yourself in reading and language. Make it a part of who you are. Read children's poetry, novels, nonfiction, picture books, or whatever it is you are interested in writing yourself. Read for pleasure, to learn, and to absorb a feel for language. Then put it to work and practice, practice, practice.

* Develop a thick skin. You'll need it if your end goal is publication. Remember: a rejection of what you've written is not a rejection of you. There are more factors influencing an editor's tastes from day to day than we can imagine.

* Never give up. _____________________________________________
Jill Esbaum's poems, stories, and articles have appeared in many major children's magazines. Her first picture book, Stick Soup (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), was released in March, 2004. Also scheduled for publication are: Ste-E-E-E-Eamboat A-Comin'! (FSG, 2005), and Estelle Takes A Bath (Henry Holt, 2006). Her poem, "A New View," appears in the humorous poetry anthology I Invited A Dragon To Dinner (and Other Poems to Make You Laugh Out Loud) (Philomel, 2002). Visit her website at: