Recently in The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing Category

Authors in the Classroom

gender-1459661_1280.png"Ackk, I've been asked to do a school visit! What do I talk about?" Often there's some panic or anxiety to the question.

The amazing thing is I've talked about the same topics and done the same writing exercises for a variety of ages for school visits. Yes, of course, the wording or detail is simpler for younger kids than for older kids; the exercises less complicated, but it's the same material.

I like showing my first book to a group of children and asking them, "How long do you think it took since I started writing this book to when it was published?" They'll guess a month. I point up. They guess three months, six months, a year. I keep pointing up. The students are shocked when I finally tell them seven years! I talk about why it takes so long: writing, rewriting, critiques, rewriting, submissions, waiting, rejections, acceptance, contract, editing, time for the cover to be created (or the illustrations to be done), printing. I also tell them, "No, I didn't do the pictures."

I've done the same thing with short stories. Talked about how after I wrote it, I had it critiqued (explaining what that means), rewriting, submissions, editing, time till publication. My first story for Highlights for Children took three years to be in print after I signed the contract! I've told them things my editor said on this short story and how I fixed the problems. In this story's case, it took two rewrites with the editor. Since kids think writing a piece once is good enough teachers love this.

So what can YOU talk about? Here's a list of ideas:

  • What writing the book was like.
  • When you write.
  • Where you write. (I write at home, sometimes in my pajamas, on my laptop. Or at my desktop where I stand. I like meeting other writers to write in coffee shops.)
  • What inspired you to write in general and this specific book in particular.
  • The hardest thing for you to learn about writing.
  • Number of rejections on this book.
  • If you have an agent, what that person does for you.
  • Rewrites and edits.
  • Read various drafts of a paragraph or page so they can see the difference writing makes.
  • Funny writing mistakes you've made.
  • Titling your book.
  • Naming your characters.
  • Why you decided to write from the viewpoint of your main character.
  • Why you included humor, or romance, or facts about science or baseball.
  • How you came up with the personality of your main character.
  • How you chose the setting for your book.
  • The unique factors of your book.
  • The skills of the main character and where you got that knowledge (experience, research, interviews).
  • Plotting your story.
  • Big problems you had writing this particular story. E.g. I couldn't figure out how my main character was going to . . . And then . . .
  • Your favorite part of the book.
  • Read a scene from the book and ask the kids what they think might happen next. (If they haven't read the book.)
  • Q&A - but I strongly recommend having some starter questions that are on the topic you want to discuss or having the teacher work with the kids to prepare questions ahead of time. Kids will go off topic, will make statements instead of asking questions. If they read your book ahead of time, they may have "why" questions.
  • Your education to prepare for writing, if any. Or that you attended lots of conferences and workshops, read books, etc.
  • Money! Tell students how much you earn per book or explain advances and royalties. (They'll often think authors are rich, so you may have to put it in some kind of context.)
  • Ask them about their favorite books or authors and tell them some of yours appropriate for their age level.
  • Book genres.
  • How many copies of your books have sold and what that would look like if they were stacked or laid out end to end.
  • Your book an ebook? Make sure they know what that means. Talk about how those books can be read. Ask if any of them (or their parents) read books electronically. (One safe way to ask some questions is to say, "raise your hand if . . ."
  • What you cut out of your book and why.
  • Why you wrote it in first person or third person or from different viewpoints.
  • Did you go somewhere and do research? Show pictures!

You can also do activities. I like to do an activity related to something I talk about. Some writers mostly do activities. (Remember two things: have kids raise their hands to answer or ask questions, and plan very simple writing for under fourth grade. You can do a lot of the writing on a white board for younger children.)

  • Create samples of poor versus good writing to read. Ask them which they like best. Ask them why they like it better? Talk about those reasons. E.g. They say it is more exciting. You explain about action, suspense, details, etc.
  • Have them draw something from your story.
  • Do a simple story outline as a group. First, decide on a character, then this person's problem, discuss possible solutions, etc.
  • Give a simple scenario about a kid with a problem and have the students write for five minutes as if they were that kid. (Give very specific guidelines.)
  • Explain about the five senses. Ask the kids to write a description of their favorite place using as many senses as they can.
  • Think about activities related directly to your book. Your main character collects words. As a group create a list of interesting words. Your mc makes wishes, each student could write down three of their wishes and share a top wish with the group.
  • Your next book is about a specific age gender who lives in a specific place. Make a group list of what hobbies this kid could have. Does she have older, younger siblings? How many? Does he have pets? What kind? This is showing them the kinds of decisions authors make all the time.
  • Give each student (or small group) a verb or noun and have them come up with more specific verbs or synonyms. Everyone will get to share and you may add suggestions. This can lead to a discussion of a thesaurus.
  • Have volunteer students read a scene from your book as if they are the different characters. They have to act out what the characters are doing, so you'll provide some appropriate props. You can be the narrator.
  • Ask what kinds of problems they've read about in stories and/or know about from real life. E.g. someone sick in family, wanting to win a contest, earning money for something special. Write them down for all to see and pick two or three to combine into a new story idea. Talk about how you'd get ready to write that story.
  • Tell them how writing was your dream and ask them what dreams they have? Think how you can turn that into some kind of writing activity. Would you have them write about the steps they need to achieve their dream? The kind of education or training they'll need? Or why they want to reach that goal? Of course, you'll make it age appropriate.

Remember, kids of all ages like it when adults are interested in them. They also like the novelty of special guests in the classroom. That means that most of them are happy you are there. Listen to them as well as talk and you'll probably have a satisfactory visit.

If this was helpful, you may also want to read these older posts: Dragged to the Podium and Going Back to School.

Why Twitter?

twitter.jpgTwitter. Facebook. Snapchat. Instagram. Periscope. There are so many options in social media that it can be hard to choose which one(s) to use. If you aren't on Twitter, don't know why you as a writer might want to use it, or don't know what to do with the Twitter account you have, perhaps this post will be helpful.

First, what is Twitter?

An internet discussion/social network where messages are 140 characters long. Some refer to this as microblogging. You can say what you want, whenever you want, and your followers can read it whenever they want. Messages are referred to as "tweets." Messages can include links to a website or blog, photos or videos, gifs, and polls.

My Reasons for Using Twitter

I started using Twitter to connect with other kidlit writers and to get better acquainted with editors and agents. It's a good place for those purposes, both which are really about connection.

Find People to Follow

Following someone is how you get to read messages in Twitter. Your Twitter feed, your timeline, is made up of messages posted by anyone you follow, plus messages you send. It's how you listen in on the conversation. It's how you join public conversations or start conversations. Messages are in chronological order in your feed with the most recent messages on top.

I started by following some writer friends. Then followed some people my friends followed. Since then I add people I meet, read about, read their books, hear speak, or find through retweets, or through Twitter suggestions. I may or may not follow those who follow me.

If I don't know anything about a person, I read his/her bio and some sample tweets. Sometimes I follow someone and later unfollow them as their tweets bother me (it could be language, or too much self-promotion, or too much discussion of politics.)

Because I now have an adult ebook out from Clean Reads, I have a Twitter handle for that pen name @SMFordwriter, too. I've found that the children's literature community--just as they are in person--are more open to conversation, helping each other, sharing, etc.--than the adult literature community.

The Conversation: What Do You Say on Twitter?

Answer questions. Here's an example that @KSonnack posted yesterday: "I need some book recs. #1: for an 8yo who just moved to a new city and is having trouble adjusting. Go!"

Follow links to articles, then comment or retweet the original tweet. (Retweeting means sending the tweet out again from your user name.)

Share articles. This from August 11th: "The 11th hour villain. I agree with this concept. ...

Use the heart to "like" what someone says.

Comment on or retweet tweets. Such as: @Corinneduyvis on September 2nd: "Hugely important part of writing for me: my plot notebook. I take pen, paper, and just talk my way through scenes and problems."

Share good news, links to blog posts, writer quotes, and book recommendations.

Ask questions.

Celebrate others' good news and sympathize with bad.

Conversations: Private

You can also have private conversations by using DM (direct message) through Twitter. This only works for people who follow you. You can DM a single person or a group. More info here.

Searching Twitter

Twitter is searchable and the main tool to use is a hashtag. Hashtags can be anything anyone creates using the pound symbol (#) followed by a word or words with no spaces, but common ones start becoming known, such as #amwriting or #writingtips or #writingchallenge or #kidlit. Some are just initials or abbreviations that have become great tools.

Some of the most useful writer hashtags for submitting are #MSWL (manuscript wish list), #PitMad (pitch madness), and #PitchWars (a contest).

  • #MSWL also has a website--both the hashtag and the website offer editors and agents to post "what they are looking for." This is amazing!

  • #PitMad is a chance for writers to pitch manuscripts during quarterly events. Basic information can be found here. One of the most important things about it is that tweeters must also indicate the genre of the manuscript with another hashtag, such as #PB #MG #YA.

  • #PitchWars is a "a contest where published/agented authors, editors, or interns choose one writer each, read their entire manuscript, and offer critiques on how to make the manuscript shine." See full details for 2016 here. What a deal!

These latter two give you a chance to see if your pitches are working. Do they garner any attention or not? You can often offer different versions to try pitches out.

Search for a specific editor or agent--one you'd like to know more about--by name. You may find links to interviews or blog posts by this person. You may find comments about the agent or editor. If the agent or editor has an account, you can read his/her tweets. Seeing a "I hate squirrels" tweet would let you know not to send a squirrel story to that specific person.

Twitter Lists

One of the tools on Twitter is the ability to assign those you are following to lists. I normally add someone to a list when I follow them. That means if I want to see what Picture Book writers are saying today, I can just see the posts of the people I've put on my PB list. (Would need to use Tweetdeck or HootSuite). Lists can be public or private.

Setting Up Twitter

When you sign up for an account, you create a user name or handle--mine is @SusanUhlig, my pen name for my children's writing. The @ symbol is the common way to indicate a Twitter handle. Once you have someone's user name, you can view their page by typing in your browser So in my case it would be Once you go to my page, you'll see Sue (Susan Uhlig) followed by @susanuhlig.

Actions you need to take asap are upload an avatar--usually a picture of you--and create a bio. You don't have a lot of characters, so keep it short and pertinent. Mine says: "Children's Book (PB, readers, MG, YA) & Mag Writer. Writing helps/book recs on my site ('cuz I always have an opinion). SCBWI Oregon. ICL Instructor." You can see I used some of my bio space for affiliations. I also get to list my location and my website in addition to my bio. Another fun option is adding a header photo, but that can come later. However, often people won't follow those who do not have an avatar.

Of course, Twitter itself has articles and FAQs that can help you get started.

Once you are set up, you can join the conversation. If you find you are spending way too much time on Twitter, set a timer for how long you want to be on and when it goes off, close that Twitter window.

Making Use of Twitter

You can also set up a Twitter widget on your website that will show a specified number of your most recent tweets. It's one way to have frequently changing content on your site. (How you do this depends on your website software.)

Someone once asked me if I could explain Twitter in 140 characters. As you can see, I can't. But I can sure tweet this post.

What Should I Describe?

whiteboard-303145_1280.pngWriting a novel for middle grade or YA? What should you describe? What should you leave out?

Let's first start with WHAT TO INCLUDE.

When a manuscript doesn't have enough description, it's like the characters are standing in front of a white board. They are talking, but the reader doesn't know where, or when, or what the characters are doing. If movies resonate more with you, think about a show where the actors are in front of the blue screen and no CGI has yet been done. In other words, you want to give the readers a sense of setting.

A simple start for setting is to mention the place the character is in, going to, leaving, etc.

Example: I walked into the kitchen.

What does a kid care about in that kitchen? It depends. Are they hungry? Or going in to do a chore? Or just looking for someone else? Show what it is by using some sensory details. Adding sensory details to the above example, achieves varied results depending on your goal and the character's circumstances.

Sensory Examples:

  • I walked into the kitchen and jerked open the fridge. Nothing to eat, but a dried up piece of veggie pizza.

  • In the kitchen, I leaned over the pot on the stove and removed the lid. My stomach growled at the released odor of beef, potatoes and carrots. Stew. Yumm!

  • I trudged into the kitchen and groaned at the heaped sink of dirty dishes. Why do I have to do all these?

  • Skating into the kitchen, I found Mom removing the case off a PC. Oh, no! Who'd roped her into fixing their computer now? So much for getting her to drive me to the skate park.

Notice I changed the verb "walked" in several cased to make it more fitting for the scene I had in mind, which reminds me, choose specific verbs that add to the scene. It can show something about your character's attitude or mood, hobby or typical way of moving, family, and more. I also used specific nouns by mentioning what was found in each of these scenarios.

Show what the character is doing. Characters who are only talking aren't as interesting as characters who are doing something while they talk. Say the kids are in the school cafeteria. Is your character pushing into line to get hot lunch? At the salad bar picking up each piece of lettuce carefully before putting it on a plate? Opening a lunch box or paper sack? Shoving in huge bites of food so as to be done quickly and get to the playground? Flirting? Doing homework? Eating the sunflower butter sandwich provided for those without lunch money or lunch credits? Smearing the ketchup on their tray with an index finger? Whatever kids are doing while talking will make the conversation more interesting. Plus the reader won't realize you are slipping in a bits of description with this method.

Even when a character is alone and thinking, he or she if usually doing something: chewing on fingernails, pulling loose threads or hair, swinging a leg, tapping something, picking at a zit, plucking eyebrows, petting a cat or dog, doodling, cleaning a fish tank, listening to music, etc.

"But my character is motionless." That happens, but the senses of smell, taste, touch, temperature, sight and hearing don't stop. Try sitting totally still and take note of what you do. At this moment, besides my fingers on the keyboard, I'm hearing a fan. I can't keep my left foot still, so my flip flop is working its way off as I bounce the foot. I've sniffed (allergies). My ear itches. Characters should experience what's around them to become alive.

Be specific and make details do extra duty. What is unique to this character? She plays baseball. He loves jigsaw puzzles. Show those things with a few well-chosen details. What is unique to this character's bedroom or park or wherever? My baseball playing girl might have posters of famous baseball players on the walls of her bedroom. She might have a mitt or batt on a shelf and a uniform hanging on the back of the door. My jigsaw puzzle boy might have a card table in the family room that always has a puzzle in process. He might have puzzles glued and framed on the walls of his bedroom or a shelf with boxes and boxes of puzzles. A messy personality will deal differently with these items than a naturally neat person. You can hint a different aspects of personality with how a character treats his or her own possessions. Does something in the bedroom contradict other things we know about the character? Or point to something coming later in the plot?


Excessive character description. Most of the time the reader doesn't really care what the main character looks like. They want to know more about the internal workings and the actions of the character.

Not sure how much description of your character to include? Read the introductions of main characters in books similar to what you're writing. See how much is said and how much is left to the imagination. When reading stories in first person, I notice main characters are more likely to describe someone else than themselves.

The boring parts readers skip:

  • Things that an elementary aged kid or teen would not find interesting. If it has no relevance to someone that age, why mention it?

  • Blocks of description especially of ordinary places and ordinary items that don't have any special relevance. Include what is different or unusual instead.

  • Too much description. Readers want to get to the action (especially in middle grade stories).


"Writing the Middle Grade Novel" by Kristi Holl

Point 4 in "Six Steps to Make Your Children's Story Sparkle" by Laura Backes

"4 Keys to Writing Un-put-downable Middle Grade Adventure" by Richard Ungar

"The 3 golden rules of writing a young adult novel" by Robert Wood

"The Art of Description: Eight Tips to Help You Bring Your Settings to Life" by Anne Marble

Magazine Story or Picture Book?

picture-108539_1280.jpgIs it a magazine story or a picture book? How do you know? Consider these factors.


How does the story read aloud? Can you see a kid wanting the story read over and over and over? Will an adult be willing to do that reading? This is about the language of the story. It's not whether it is written in verse, but whether the language is fun to read aloud. Often phrases will be memorable. There may be a rhythm. There may be repetitive language, almost like a chorus in a song, although much shorter. Does the language itself add to the story? Do words roll off of the tongue or are they difficult to read aloud?

Page Turns

Next consider whether page turns are going to be important in building the tension or the humor of the story. With magazine stories page turn doesn't usually hold any significance. Picture books are totally different. Page turns can enhance the drama, create an expected pattern, affect the pace of the story. Page turns can set up a surprise or twist. This is where creating a dummy is helpful.


Then think about the illustratability of the story. Will one image suffice or will it need many images to complete the story? Will the reader get all they need from the words? Or will art work fill in details the words leave out? Magazine stories often have a fair amount of description. Picture books don't. Use a dummy to check for illustration possibilities.

How to Make a Picture Book Dummy

Making a picture book dummy is helpful when looking at both page turns and where the story is illustratable. Print out your text and cut it up where you think the natural page breaks would be for a 32 page picture book. Take 8 sheets of paper and fold in half like a book. The story can start on page 3, 4 or 5. As you lay out the words can you envision changing images for each spread? Or are the characters static? Can you see more story being told through the pictures? If you can't see different active images for each spread and the story being enhanced by those images, you probably have a magazine story.

Now look at pacing. Is there anticipation as you turn the pages? If you break lines in different places, can you change the pace? Does a page turn create a surprise or an expected pattern? Does speeding or slowing the pace change the emotions?

To conclude...

Magazine story - more description, images a bonus, page turns unnecessary, read aloud does not invite audience participation.
Picture book - description mostly left to the illustrator, images complete the story, page turns necessary for telling the story, great read aloud that often invites participation.

Nonfiction Writing

blackboard-583692_1920.jpgIf you've considered writing nonfiction, but aren't sure where to start, my first recommendation is to find some magazines that have articles you enjoy. Focus on the magazines where the articles are similar to what you'd like to write. Read lots of those articles. You'll learn so much seeing what other writers have done well. You'll know what style and tone those magazines prefer. Writing for magazines is a good place to get some writing credits, too.

How to Find Topics

Consider the skills you already know that children or teens might be interested in. Could you turn your experience into a "how to" article?

Or think about an unusual place you visited or lived. Is there something there that kids don't commonly know? If you find something fascinating, there's a good chance young people will too.

A third option is to think about something you wish you knew more about. Researching can lead to article ideas.

Don't forget theme lists. Many magazines share the topic where they want articles. Maybe one of those topics is perfect for you.

Helpful Resources to Start

"Children's Nonfiction: a Niche Worth Pursuing" by Sue Bradford Edwards

"A Crafty Way to Break into Children's Writing" by Mary Cox

"Six Tips to Help You Break into the Children's Magazine Markets with Your Non-Fiction for Kids!" by Suzanne Lieurance
Note: Tip 6. says "lesson known." It should be "lessor known."

Resources on Researching Nonfiction

"Writing Nonfiction" by Ann Bausum

"10 Easy (ha-ha) Steps For Nonfiction Research" by Kristen Fulton

"NonFiction Picture Books: Research Required" by Darcy Pattison


Of course as with any writing, you'll need to do revisions. One of my tips for those who write an article without an outline is to make an outline after the first draft. Look at each paragraph and write a one to three word summary of the paragraph. Does your mini-outline make sense? Does it follow a logical progression? If not, use this mini-outline to rearrange paragraphs, balance out the information you're presenting, and move the article along. It can help you see holes and redundancy too.

Resources for Different Areas of Nonfiction Writing

"From Spark to Story: one writer's take on the joys and challenges of picture-book biographies" by Tanya Lee Stone

"Finding the Micro-Niche in Science Writing" by Darcy Pattison

"How to Propose, Research, and Write a Children's Nonfiction Nature Book" by Steve Swinburne

Other Resources for Writing Nonfiction

"Three Keys to Writing Nonfiction for Children" - a podcast by Katie Davis
(I also answer a question about rhythm and meter at the end of this podcast.)

"Seven Tips for Writing Children's Nonfiction" by Brandon Marie Miller

"Ending It All"--it isn't written specifically about children's articles, yet it has some very helpful points.

"Focus on Nonfiction with Agent Ken Wright & Three Authors"

Nonfiction Blogs and Ezines

Educational Markets for Children's Writers by Evelyn Christensen

I.N.K. - Interesting Nonfiction for Kids
In this blog, 26 respected nonfiction children's book writers shared research and writing techniques. It's no longer updated, but search for specific topics.

Nonfiction Monday - Rounding up the best nonfiction for children and teens
A blog by Anastasia Suen

STEM Friday = Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Books
A blog by Anastasia Suen

Tips for Writing for the Education Market by Evelyn Christensen

Writing for Children's Magazines by Evelyn Christensen

Writing for the Education Market

Nonfiction Groups

Nonfiction for Kids Listserv
Members discuss the craft, marketing and publishing of nonfiction for children. You'll need to join.

NonFiction Writer's Facebook group Join.

NFforKids on Goodreads - a public group

I know there are more wonderful resources out there. Anyone wanting to share more, can add a note in the comments.

Authors in the Classroom

Why Twitter?

What Should I Describe?

Magazine Story or Picture Book?

Nonfiction Writing

Do It Myself!

Swift Fiction - The Short Story in Focus

What Stops Me Reading!

Distancing Your Reader

Resizing Photos for Use on Websites


Are List Serves a Service or a Waste of Time?

Reducing Word Count

MS Wish List

How to Stand Out


Kids Reading Books and Saying What They Think


Selling Photos to Magazines

Poor Man's Copyright, a Myth

Missing Students

The Right Number of Characters

What Do You Do When You're Stuck?

Naming Your Character

Considering Self-Publishing?

When Educational Publishers Ask for Your Résumé

Say What?

Write Well When the Muse Is Sleeping

Writing Process Blog Tour

Truth in Fiction

Plodding or Plotting

Raise the stakes, honey!

One Size Does NOT Fit All


175 Proof

He Thought to Himself and Other Excesses

Confessions of a Writer Easily Distracted

Is That Right?

Writing Business Expenses


The Hero's Journey for Magazine Writers

Altitude and Attitude - Adult or Child?

Slow Down, You Move too Fast

Kidz Only! Adults Keep Out!

A Dark Side of Social Media

Do you struggle with grammar?

Can children and teens can get their work published?

Patience Required

I'm a Work-in-Progress

Illustrator Resources

Inspiration from Kate DiCamillo

Are Listserves a Service or a Waste of Time?

Writing and Life Balance

How To Start Querying an Agent


Nancy I. Sanders on Writing Nonfiction


Perfecting Dialogue Punctuation

Ouch! Thin Skin!

Agents Telling What They Want

School Visits, the Extended Version

Going Back to School

One of 75 finalists

Make It Work for You

Down with Discouragement!

Do as I Say

Professional Problem Maker

4 Ways to Make Your Characters "Talk Different"

Picture Book Month

Work-for-Hire Resources

Work-for-Hire Wisdom

Work-for-Hire also known as WFH

Picture Perfect Picture Books

Picture Book Resources

Author Talks versus Workshops

My Favorite Online Resources

Technicalities - More Thoughts on Public Speaking

Do as I Say

Theme List Tactics

What Would Sue Do?

Attribution or Action?

Don't Throw in the Towel

Do You Remember?

Dragged to the Podium

Double Identity - Pen Names

Before You Sign: Contract Resources

Welcome, Diane Bailey, Work-for-hire Champion

Ready, Set, Goal

An Editor's Day

How'd You Get That Gig?

On the Hunt for Ideas

Bloggers Supporting Other Bloggers

Shadowing a Submission

Give up or press on?

Turning Ideas Into Stories - Workshop

After the Critique

Keeping Track

The Synopsis Shrink

Mind Your Cs and Qs - part three

Mind Your Cs and Qs - part two

Mind Your Cs and Qs - part one

Standard Manuscript Format


Critique Methods

Market Research Resources - Agents



Organizations and Groups

Writing a Novel? Where Does It Fit?

Meeting Editors and Agents - In Person

Meet Editors and Agents - Online

Book It! - Recording What You Read

Theme and Premise

Self-Editing Tips

The Story Ladder or Novel Timeline

Showing Versus Telling

Read, Read, Read

The Power of a Good First Line

Hooking your Reader

Listen to the Voices


Viewpoint in Children's Fiction

Making Friends: Character Development

Glossary of Publishing Terms

Genre Resources

Children's Book Genres

Why Write?