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The ABCs of Writing for Kids: Active, Brief, and Cut Cut Cut
by Eugie Foster

Return to Writing for Children · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

Compared to other markets, children's literature is subject to fairly rigorous maximum word count limits. Magazine guidelines top out at around 2000 for middle-grade audiences and 1000 for younger readers, while picture books peak at around 800, with those for pre-readers cresting at 400 words or less. And while these are maximums, editors and publishers typically prefer less.

These word limits aren't arbitrary or because editors of children's literature don't like reading long manuscripts. Kids tend to have short attention spans, and editors know their publications must compete with video games, television, and the Internet for a child's entertainment time. But this presents a particular challenge to writers for young readers: how to fit a whole story, complete with engaging and three-dimensional characters, a compelling plot, conflict, theme, and a satisfying resolution into 2000 words or less?

The answer is to remember your ABC's: active, brief, and cut cut cut.

Active:

1. Eliminate passive voice.

Passive voice is when the subject of a sentence receives the verb's operation rather than performing it. Sentences laid out in passive voice diminish the impact of what characters do and lessen the immediacy of events. Prose is weak and readers remain detached from the action when protagonists are done upon rather than being active doers.

Passive voice always contains a form of "to be," often with the agent performing the action indicated with "by":

  • Passive: The goblin was frightened by Cindy.
  • Active: Cindy frightened the goblin.

Although the "by" is sometimes absent and the agent inferred:

  • Studies have been conducted to verify the results.

However, the presence of a form of "to be" doesn't make a sentence passive voice. This is sometimes misunderstood by writers who labor under the mistaken belief that all forms of "to be" should be eradicated. While there is a school of thought, E-Prime, which advocates this, and certainly removing all occurrences of "to be" would indeed eliminate any passive voice in your prose, it would also result in awkward and unnatural constructs:

  • Whose child is this? - Succinct and easy to understand.
  • What person or persons claim responsibility for the procreation of this child? - Yuck.

2. Limit use of the verb "to be."

"To be" serves functions of identity and predication, and attempting to express some concepts without it becomes needlessly unwieldy. But writers should take care to use it sparingly. Overusing "to be" will result in bland, inactive sentences.

Strong verbs make up the foundation of evocative storytelling. They add meaning to sentences; a good verb can show what a character is thinking as well as doing. By replacing generic, nondescript verbs with expressive ones, you make your writing more active.

  • Bobby walked across the room. - Boring.

  • Bobby ambled across the room. - Conveys pace and energy level. Bobby might also bolt, careen, stroll, shuffle, stagger, or saunter; these all express different emotions and connotations that "walk" lacks.

However, even the liveliest verb can become watered down if stuck in a past or present progressive (continuous) sentence with "to be":

  • Bobby was skipping across the room.

3. Show don't tell.

Avoid unnecessary narrative intrusion. A tight point of view--first or third person--is more than describing your character's actions to the exclusion of all others, it's also providing the illusion that the reader is sharing your character's perceptions, thoughts, and emotions. By drawing attention to the existence of a narrator, you weaken the illusion. Words like "thought," "felt," "saw," and "seemed" tell the reader the events of your story from an invisible narrator's perspective and outside of your protagonist's. Showing is more visceral and intimate, more active.

  • Telling: George felt sweaty, and his shirt felt uncomfortable. He thought it seemed warmer than the first day of winter ought to.

  • Showing: Sweat trickled down George's neck and plastered his shirt to his back. How could this be the first day of winter?

Brief:

1. Keep your story moving.

When writing for children, know where your story is going and don't let yourself meander or get sidetracked. While that languid, descriptive paragraph might be brilliantly written, if it bogs down the progress of your plot, it needs to go. Staying focused on the essential story elements will ensure your pacing is lightning fast.

2. Avoid excessive detail.

Only include the pivotal events needed to convey your story. Many beginning writers explicitly state every action their protagonist does and get bogged down in needless detail. But readers will infer a lot without having to be spoon-fed.

  • Too much information: Albert reached into his left pocket with his hand and used his fingers to pull out the stone he'd put there earlier that day.

  • Brief is better: Albert pulled the stone from his pocket.

This applies to both a micro, sentence level as well as a macro, whole story level. Don't be tempted to include unnecessary backstory or superfluous elements of setting or introduce extra characters.

3. Don't repeat.

If you only have 2000 words to tell a story, you don't have the space for repetition. If you describe Bob as having blue eyes, you don't need to remind the reader that Bob has blue eyes every time he looks at something. Likewise, don't be tempted to summarize or provide a recap, through expository dialogue:

  • "As you know, Bob . . ."

Cut cut cut.

1. Limit qualifiers.

Qualifiers such as "a little," "kind of," and "sort of" dilute prose, making statements weak and irresolute:

  • Sue was a little displeased. She had sort of expected Ben to behave with a bit more decorum.

Ones intended for emphasis, either intensifiers ("very," "really") or reducers ("barely," "nearly," "almost"), don't impart information:

  • Larry was very happy. Betty really didn't like soccer.

Tighten your writing by axing unneeded qualifiers. Same meaning, fewer words:

  • Sue was displeased. She had expected Ben to behave with more decorum. Larry was happy. Betty didn't like soccer.

2. Prune adjectives and adverbs.

Too many writers count on adjectives and adverbs to provide meaning and vibrancy to their prose, not realizing that verbs are the powerhouses. A strong verb doesn't need an adverb, and a weak verb won't be strengthened by the addition of one.

  • Weak verb + adverb: Frank lightly touched the wall.
  • Strong verb: Frank's fingertips grazed the wall.

And while many writers know to avoid said-bookisms, those distracting, bordering-on-ludicrous substitutes for "said":

  • He warbled, she ejaculated, they vociferated.

Sticking adverbs onto a dialogue tag isn't any better:

  • "You've got to be kidding me!" he said laughingly.

Similarly, don't overuse adjectives. More is not better. Especially if the ones you choose are bland:

  • Rima was a pretty girl with long, dark hair and a nice, bright smile.

Again, some writers take these guidelines to extremes and labor to cut all adverbs and adjectives. Like "to be," adverbs and adjectives have legitimate uses. Prose completely lacking them is invariably Spartan and stark.

A good writer knows how to use the tools of their trade. As with any other artisan, some tools are best suited for certain tasks, and using the wrong one harms the final product. While a carpenter could use a sanding block to pound in a nail, a hammer really is best. But a hammer does a poor job of smoothing wood to a satiny finish.

3. Avoid sequential transitional devices.

Words like "then," "next," and "finally" are often unnecessary. The chronology of events should be transparent, making them extra baggage:

  • Finally, Tina wrote the last paragraph. Then she re-read her manuscript, and next she declared, "it's done!"

  • Tina wrote the last paragraph, re-read her manuscript, and declared, "it's done!"

Making these cuts may sting, but writers must be ruthless in order to ensure that their final product is fast, exciting, and interesting. If you're not sure whether a word, phrase, sentence, or paragraph should go or not, cut it, read what's left, and if your story still makes sense, leave it out.

Find Out More...

Becoming Your Own Editor - Moira Allen
http://www.writing-world.com/grammar/editor.shtml

Editing Secrets to Make Your Work Shine - Laura Backes
http://www.writing-world.com/children/edit.shtml

Why You Can't Rely on Your Spellchecker - Jan K. the Proofer
http://www.writing-world.com/grammar/spellcheck.shtml

References

  1. Simanek, Donald E. (1991). "Reduced English." Lock Haven University. The Vector, 20(15). (Retrieved from http://www.lhup.edu/~DSIMANEK/eprime.htm)

  2. Bourland, D. D., Jr., & Johnston, P.D. (1991). "To Be or Not: An E-Prime Anthology," International Society for General Semantics. (Retrieved from http://www.nobeliefs.com/eprime.htm)

Copyright © 2007 Eugie Foster
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.


Eugie Foster is a short-fiction writer specializing in genre and children's literature. She has sold more than a dozen stories to the Cricket Magazine Group, including Spider, Cricket and Cicada, as well as to an assortment of other children's magazines including Dragonfly Spirit and Story Station. She holds an M.A. in developmental psychology, has co-authored a textbook on child development, and is a frequent speaker at Dragon*Con's Young Adult Literature Track. She is a member of the SFWA and managing editor of Tangent (http://www.tangentonline.com). Foster maintains a list of children's SF/F magazine markets at her website, http://www.eugiefoster.com.

 

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