Writing for children is different from writing for adults in a few important ways. One issue is the need to consider reading level. The grade level or reading level needs to fit the audience. For example, kindergartners might be able to understand a story if they heard it read aloud, when they wouldn’t actually be able to read it. A first-grader who is learning to read may have trouble with more advanced grammar, such as contractions and compound sentences. Most fifth-graders cannot read material written at a high school level. This means a story aimed at elementary children can look quite different from one aimed at teenagers.
If you are using Microsoft Word, you can get an idea of the grade level of your work. It’s simply a matter of having grammar check turned on along with spell check. Search for “readability” in the Help menu for instructions. You can check a complete story or article, a paragraph, or even a single sentence. This is a great way to explore how changing your wording changes your reading level. Write a paragraph and check the grade level. Then edit the paragraph and check the grade level again. In general, simpler vocabulary and shorter sentences will make the reading level lower. Play with the language to see if you can simplify it even more. Do this over and over, and see how things change.
Microsoft Word’s Readability score is a great way to explore how changing your wording changes your reading level.
Let’s try an example. Here’s a made-up sentence for an imaginary fantasy story:
A lot is wrong with that sentence, including too much action packed into two lines. Right now we’ll focus on reading level. This example comes out at a 12.9 reading level. (That’s means it’s appropriate for the ninth month of 12th grade.) Let’s try to simplify it. First, I’ll try something easy and break it into two sentences:
That simple change brought it down to an 7.7 grade level. The first sentence is at a 6.7 reading level, and the second sentence is at 9.5. That’s fine for a young adult novel, and probably all right for a middle grade novel, so long as the entire book isn’t written at such a high level. (It’s good to have occasional vocabulary words and sentences that challenge young readers. However, if a piece is overwhelmingly too difficult for a child to read, she or he will probably give up.)
What if the target audience is younger? Let’s try some more changes.
Overall, that’s now at a 4.4 reading level. The first two sentences are easy enough for early middle grade, or even upper elementary. In the last sentence, replacing enormous, ascending, and chasm with simpler words brought it down to a 6.7 grade level. It’s a few words longer than the previous version, but crack in the ground is easier than chasm. I tried replacing mythical with fairytale, but that didn’t change the grade level. Replacing creature with animal made it worse. Of course, maybe I could figure out what kind of mythical creature it is, and name it or describe it in simple detail. That would not only get rid of the challenging words, but would also create a clearer picture. Worrying about reading level might sound restrictive, but in reality, simpler writing is often clearer, and therefore more effective.
Of course, regardless of your readership age, you want your stories and articles to be fun and engaging. This usually means straightforward language and relatively simple sentences. Forget the dry, academic language you may have learned in college or on the job. Look for lively, active verbs, language that paints a clear picture, and a good mix of action and dialogue, with just enough description to set the scene. In addition, try to keep your sentences short and simple, but with enough variety that the story does not sound clunky. Reading the work aloud is a good way to check this.
(This article was adapted from a chapter in my new book You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers.)