Thursday, November 05, 2009

Writing For Children 1 - don't ask children

I gave a talk the other day called something like 'Writing for Children: generating ideas and writing that children will actually be interested in.' I can't remember the exact title. It was a bit long and to be honest I have trouble remembering titles that are more than three words.

Anyway, I thought I might break down some of the things I talked about into blog-sized chunks for your delight and entertainment. Obviously you won't have the benefit of my exciting and surprising powerpoint presentation that originally accompanied the ordeal, but you have other benefits, such as tea, your own comfy chair and the invitation to imagine that I'm giving this talk in any voice you like. I suggest Yosemite Sam for starters.

So... Writing for Children, Tip 1: Don't test it out on a child.

I don't hear many published authors telling people to test out their writing on a child. However, I do hear lots of aspiring writers saying that they've done just that - they gave something they wrote to a child they know, and the child loved it. I don't recommend that strategy.

First of all, the child you test things out on is going to want to like it. Not liking it would be awkward and to tell you so would be borderline sociopathic.

Second, even if the child can identify some moments or aspects of your writing that they don't like as much, they will struggle to tell you why. That doesn't just apply to children - people in general are much better at saying they don't like something than giving accurate feedback as to what should change so that they would like it.

Third, who's the writer in this scenario? You or the kid? Most of the time (not all, but most) testing your work-in-progress on a child is a sign that deep down you know there's something not quite right with it. You probably even know what that is, you just don't want to face it. You're probably showing your story to a kid with the over-optimistic hope that he or she will smile and laugh and jump up and down and tell you that you don't need to fix a word. Because any other reaction would mean that you have a lot more work to do, right? Well, here's the bad news: that reaction would mean nothing even if you got it (see points one and two). And there is definitely more work you can do on your story. Chances are you know that already and you actually just wanted a get-out-of-work-free card from having child's seal of approval.

When I write, I write for me. I don't aim at a particular child, or children in general, or even the impression of a child that I nostalgically believe I once was.

No individual child can give you a reaction that's indicative of all children.

If you really want to test out your story on a kid you might want to try one of two things: give them a few pages to read, and WATCH THEM read it. When do their eyes wander? When do they sit forward in their seat? When are they sluggish turning the page? When do they race through the paragraphs with their mouth slightly open?

Or, even better - pitch them the story. Take ten minutes. If you can't tell a story in ten minutes, it isn't worth telling. Five is better. Sit face to face and watch as you tell the story. If you're honest with yourself about the reaction you're seeing, you should have all the feedback you need right there.

One last thing: if you're thinking of testing things out on a child, why not test something out on an adult instead? After all, adults are really just stupid children. You'll get most of the same feedback. But make sure to tell them not to try to work out whether they think the story will work on a child. Eliminate second-guessing. Just let them enjoy it for themselves.

A good story is a good story, whatever the intended audience.


Anonymous said...

Who's Yosemite Sam?

Joe said...

Seriously? Who's Yosemite Sam? I'm amazed. Or maybe I've overestimated the number of people who spent most of the first ten years of their lives watching Bugs Bunny cartoons. I suppose the best introduction to Yosemite Sam would have to be a clip: