A Checklist for Aspiring Children’s Writers
Sheila Wright

If you have made a decision to write for children then allow me to congratulate you. You have chosen the most wonderful audience in the world! Children are enthusiastic, curious, engaged, creative, and frank (very frank).

But, before you quit your day job and open that retirement account to store all of your book royalties, there are some realities to writing for children that you need to be aware of––especially if your goal is mainstream publication.

…many of these steps apply equally to writers considering independent publication.

After seven years of facilitating critique groups and working closely with writers from a variety of genres, I have learned a lot, not only about writers, but also about the steps necessary to achieve success in this very competitive field. While the checklist provided below is not comprehensive, it is a lay of the land that can significantly assist aspiring authors on their path to publication. While it is written primarily for writers who seek mainstream publication, many of these steps apply equally to writers considering independent publication. Whether mainstream or self published, all authors must promote their own product, and that requires, among other things, knowing the market, staying informed, networking, and understanding your audience––so here’s my checklist for aspiring authors!

Three of my favorites are: The Only Writing Series You’ll Ever Need: Writing Children’s Books by Lesley Bolton and Lea Wait, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Publishing Children’s Books by Harold Underdown, and You Can Write Children’s Books by Tracey E. Dils. It is better to purchase the guides rather than borrow, since you will then always have them on hand for reference. Read them from front to back to become familiar with industry practices and to learn the lingo. Like all industries, children’s publishing has its own special vocabulary, such as “YA” (Young Adult). These introductory texts can help to make you an informed advocate for your own work.

If you are serious about meeting agents, editors, and publishers, then you might want to skip those lattes and put the savings towards attending events such as those sponsored by SCBWI.

This is a professional organization that helps provide writers with introductory information and offers instructional workshops, events, grants, and competitions. Their conferences throughout the year also provide networking opportunities and the chance to socialize with fellow writers and/or illustrators. If you are serious about meeting agents, editors, and publishers, then you might want to skip those lattes and put the savings towards attending events such as those sponsored by SCBWI. If budgeting is not a consideration (not true for most of us!), attend as many of these events as possible. Bottom line: you benefit from being in the company of industry professionals. Membership in the organization requires a yearly fee. SCBWI offers opportunities to both mainstream and independently published writers.

While your friends and relatives may love your stories and poems, the truth is that you need objective eyes to look at your work. If there are no critique groups close to where you live, you might consider forming one. Your local library or bookstore will be a good place to start your search. Also, SCBWI maintains a list of critique groups active in different regions for its members. Should you be so fortunate as to enjoy a wealth of critique groups in your area, visit several groups before deciding which one works best for you. Some groups focus on one genre in particular, so a picture book author would not be well placed in a YA group.

Even your best friend can’t replace an effective session with a critique group!

Fresh eyes can spot problems that you may have missed a dozen times! Additionally, other writers are often excellent brainstorming partners and may be able to help you overcome your perceived obstacles. Many benefits can be derived from a quality critique, and it is a valuable experience for both the writer and the person delivering the critique.

It is hard to emphasize how important giving some of your time and energies to others can be for yourself. Not only are you helping a charitable or community group that very likely needs all of the help that they can get, but you are also meeting others who share your interests. Some of the most wonderful opportunities come from volunteering. You may not believe it, but you will if you begin volunteering. Good intentions are powerful! So help out your local school library, volunteer for a SCBWI regional event, or find just the right organization to offer your services––it will pay back dividends that you might not even expect. Plus, it will just make you feel good!

Local librarians are one of the best resources available. They love books and are acutely aware of what children are reading. Many will share their time and knowledge with you, so take a notebook on your next visit to the library and begin asking questions. Just don’t monopolize their time or take advantage of their good will. Make your visits regular and learn as you go.

Immerse yourself in what is being published, and read a wide variety of titles. Get to know the types of books that various publishers produce. Look at the illustrations, text, themes, and overall quality of the product, etc. Ask the sales associate which books have been popular and why that might be.

Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market includes wonderful tips and advice for writers. It also lists, among other things, major publishing houses for children’s literature, the names of editors, and what material they publish. While submission guidelines are also normally included, once you have discerned which publishers seem the best fit, visit their websites for the most up-to-date information. Read submission guidelines and formatting details carefully, and submit your work exactly as specified.

Spending an entire day or more with professional mentors and educators can be of tremendous benefit on many levels. One conference, the Rutgers One-On–One Plus Conference pairs its conference attendees with a professional mentor for the day. The Highlights Foundation offers workshops and conferences in a relaxed environment where attendees and mentors can mingle and enjoy casual conversation as well as formal instruction. The main goal is to find an intensive that works for you and addresses your main interests. Ask around and see what others are saying about their workshop and conference experiences. Be an educated consumer!

I believe that the best writers are also avid readers. Read all kinds of materials: books, magazines, newspapers, online blogs, etc. While it is important to read children’s works if you are a writer of children’s literature, please remember that the world at large is your source of inspiration.

As fellow writers, they will support and nourish your needs, since they, too, understand the challenges.

If it is merely to become published or to make money, I would like to dissuade you. There are much easier ways to make money and to achieve recognition. Moreover, one day your book may very well disappear from the shelves and be replaced by someone else’s. This kind of success can be short-lived. I strongly believe that writers should write for children because they care about them and value their needs. In my own view of things, the greatest thing about writing for children is not seeing your book published, but sharing it with your readers. It is through the sharing that it becomes real, and children’s writers have the most wonderful audience in the world!

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