Writing for Children vs Writing for Adults

Posted on November 2, 2012 by in Writing

This week, editor Lil Chase talks about five differences between writing for children and writing for adults. Over to Lil…

I am an editor for WP… but also for WP2, the branch of Working Partners that develops adult fiction. In general, I don’t think there are many differences between the two; writing for children is no easier than writing for adults. Both need engaging plots with interesting characters – and there should be some sense of resolution at the end. Clichés in language and story ideas are so well known that even young children pick up on them, and are turned off by them.

If those are the similarities, what are the differences?

Length

Short stories for adults are pretty rare these days, whereas our Lucky Stars books for example (for 5-8 year olds) are never over 6,000 words. But like every book, those 6,000 words need to show a protagonist, the protagonist’s goal, the obstacle to that goal, and then the resolution. Quite a lot to cram into so few words! At the other end of the children’s scale, we produce books for middle grade and young adults which are often 60,000 words. One thing we tell ourselves: a story takes as long as it takes.

Language

A child might simply look at a page with long, unwieldy words and refuse to pick it up. But it’s not necessarily that younger readers don’t understand certain words, it’s more that language creates tone. Overly lofty language can make the child feel dictated to: much better to keep to words they are familiar with so that they can be swept up in the fun of the story.

But adults are just the same – how many times have you heard someone say they liked a book because it was ‘an easy read’? Language and word choice needs to be right for the target audience… whatever the age.

The Bad GuyThe concept of ‘baddies’ seems very childish, but lots of adult books have a bad guy too. The difference is that the adult antagonist needs a clear reason as to why they are being bad. In Beast Quest, our series for young boys, the reader accepts that Malvel is simply an evil wizard – they don’t really question his motivation for doing evil. In an adult thriller the antagonist can be a warped, cold-blooded psychopath – but the madman has to have his reasons.

 

Little Sparkles: original title Party Animals

Internal Conflicts

A young reader happily reads a story where the characters have to stop the mean Party Poopers from ruining a party [Little Sparkles]. But Holly and Rose aren’t pulled in different directions about whether or not to help, they just want to help. An adult character like Faith Morgan [The Reluctant Detective] has a story about tracking down a killer [external conflict] while also knowing that solving the crime will bring her closer to the man that broke her heart [internal conflict].

Happily Ever After  Adults can handle, and are sometimes drawn to, an unhappy ending. But children normally need their characters to solve the problem, grant the wish, defeat the beast, and live happily ever after. Often with middle grade and older you might get a bitter/sweet ending: Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls is incredibly sad… but the sweetness comes with the fact that we feel that Conor will get through his sadness. A Kestrel For A Knave by Barry Hines is the only children’s book I can think of with a truly sad ending. Can you think of any more?

So, those are my 5 main differences between editing children’s and adult fiction. Are there any others you can think of?

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