Big words, little words. What begins with words?
All of our stories do: words, words, words.
(with apologies to Dr. Seuss)
Words are the building blocks of our stories.
So it stands to reason that we should try to choose the right words, words that will move and dazzle our readers – at whatever age and reading level they currently find themselves.
How do we do that? Read on…
The rest of this post is an excerpt from my
upcoming (now available!) book, The Seven Day Manuscript Machine: Edit your children’s book to genius in only a week.
(It’ll be available in paperback and Kindle very soon, so sign up for my mailing list to be notified of a terrific freebie deal I’m planning in return for some early reviews.)
Don’t worry; I’m not about to bawl you out for picking words that are too long or inappropriate for the age group you’re writing for.
I personally think a few big words are fun at any age. But how many is too many? And how do you know if you’ve gone too far the other way, talking down to older kids? (And there’s no better way to turn them off.)
Choosing the vocabulary for your children’s book can make a difference when it comes to finding young fans. You don’t want to choose “baby words” that are so simple your target audience feels like you’re talking down to them. No reader, of any age, likes to feel condescended to.
On the other hand, if your target audience is lost and confused when they run into too many unfamiliar words, your story will crash and burn. How do you challenge your reader just the right amount?
Know your target audience.
If you’re writing early chapter books to encourage a reluctant reader, keep your vocabulary simple, your action fast-paced, and your sentences short.
However, for sophisticated middle-graders, you can likely use almost the same vocabulary that you would for adults. Your story’s plot is what will determine whether it appeals to a younger audience.
Challenge them in a fun way.
If you haven’t read any Lemony Snicket yet, pick up a book from his A Series of Unfortunate Events. They’re a great example of how to keep children engaged while challenging them with words that they probably don’t know (yet).
Through sophisticated characters and context that gives the words’ meanings away, the author encourages kids to expand their vocabulary by making big words fun.
Use powerful verbs and interesting adjectives.
When you introduce new words in the context of your story, even the youngest reader can guess at what they mean.
Using the verb “saunter” for a man who has already been described as one who confidently expects the world to wait upon him will give them a clue as to what this new word means. Adjectives can be explained the same way through the words that you use around them. If a woman is described as shallow and vapid, young readers will probably come to their own ideas about what “vapid” means.
My kids surprise me with this all the time. I could be reading a chapter book out loud that my 6-year-old son has already read and enjoyed on his own.
And I’ll come to a word, say “sabotaged,” and he asks, “what does ‘sabotaged’ mean?” He’s already read the book and loved it. So he probably figured out approximately what the word means.
An exact definition is nice, but not essential if there’s enough context.
Check your reading level.
This is one last quick tip that can help you out immeasurably.
If you’re using Microsoft Word for your manuscript, you can use its proofreading features to calculate the reading level of your manuscript.
You’ll find this feature in the main menu under “Word Options.” (Here’s a link for more details.)
Once you’ve enabled the reading level option, you’ll a box will pop up with readability statistics every time you finish running a spelling and grammar check on your story.
This tool can help you customize your words for any age of reader. If you don’t normally use Word for your writing, you can copy and paste your work into Word to use this feature.
Other programs offer similar tools. There are also tools online that let you check any text that you paste into a box on their site. Here’s one I’ve used sometimes.
Whatever words you choose, make sure they’re fun and full of life. The rest of the book is dedicated to helping you do just that. I really hope you’ll
check it out when it’s ready. - it's ready!