I was invited to the Queensland branch of SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators) to present on how to choose vocabulary when writing for children and teens. I thought I’d list here some tips and links to help authors. Want more? At the end of this post there is a downloadable PDF. FREE.
How to choose vocabulary
Why is it important to choose vocabulary carefully? Children’s minds do the most development in their younger years. The information and concepts a three year old can grasp are hugely reduced to that of a five year old. Yet, if you were to write for a twenty-five year old, there wouldn’t be much difference than writing for a forty-five year old when choosing vocabulary.
Your market wants appropriate choices. When writing for early readers, your market is parents, grandparents, teachers and librarians. They will be very critical of your word choices because they have a role of responsibility for the children in their care.
Variations in reading ability. When writing for reluctant or struggling readers, it’s important that the story content and themes match the age and experience, but the language conveys this simply. Struggling readers do not want to read ‘baby books’.
Which words? You can access spelling lists for grade via schools, publications, and websites. Oz Speller is a popular site for word choices. Also search for your grade level’s curriculum for the year and make your language suit a particular subject (if you’re writing a space adventure for grade 7, they’ll be looking at planets and moons this year). If you can adapt your novel to support the learning of a subject, you’ll be able to market that book directly to schools and teachers. You could also promote the fact it will help with school to parents on your website. Each subject of high school also has a vocabulary list for the topic covered. Try to source this list (from teacher friends or ask your local school), to use consistent language that the reader will be familiar with. And don’t forget to research similar novels to see which language choices the author has made.
Extras. You can add value to your children’s picture book or novel by incorporating easy to read font (I really love the new Dyslexie font, it’s been designed to make reading easier for children with dyslexia). Try adding activities within your book, or as free downloads on your website. You can download fonts designed to be traced, to help early readers/writers practice their lettering (get them to trace words related to your story).
Put it to the test. In Microsoft Word you can actually test your document for readability, even gaining an approximation of the grade the writing is suited to (steps to do this are included in the FREE PDF below). Also, try pasting some of your text into Rewordify—it will provide you with a simplified, easier to read version. Don’t forget Beta readers! By letting children of your readers’ age group go over your manuscript and mark anything they don’t understand, you’ll identify your vocabulary flaws.
Use hard words. It’s fine to introduce readers to new words, in fact, as a teacher, I hope you do. Just make sure the context explains the meaning clearly.
Sentence structure. It’s not just about words, but about simple or complex sentences. In picture books, you will probably use short simple sentences, mostly around six words, up to ten words. For early chapter books, you could have an average of ten words per sentence, still keeping with the simple sentence (one subject and one object). By the time you get to junior novels, you can mix simple, compound and complex sentences for variation. Most teen novels use the same language choices as adult novels, the restriction is more related to life experiences than readability.