Recently in The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing Category

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.

Do It Myself!

Remember the "do it myself!" toddler stage?wagon-988818_1920.jpg No, she doesn't want help getting dressed. He doesn't want to be pulled in the wagon; he wants to pull it. Ditto, stroller and pushing it. No, she doesn't want to hold your hand. And, yes, he'd rather feed himself despite the mess.

If a child never expresses that desire to learn, to do, to be independent, we'd be worried.

So what happens to us in adulthood? Why do we want our hands held? Why don't we want to do it ourselves?

I was reminded of this recently. I was washing my hands in the restroom at a writer's conference when a gal came in and said something like this, "Why didn't they indicate that she only does picture books? I'm a YA writer and that session was a total waste." When she noticed my faculty name badge, she got embarrassed and left abruptly.

What I wanted to say to her was, "Why didn't you do your homework? The conference website listed faculty bios. The online schedule and the schedule in our conference packets listed who was speaking when on what topic. Didn't you read all that?" I'll admit as faculty, I hadn't paid much attention to the other speakers beforehand. But that day I'd listened and had learned the editor had "a focus on early childhood-from board books to picture books and beginning readers." (Quote from her bio.) The YA writer could have chosen one of the other three breakouts instead of choosing to waste her time.

As an instructor of adults who want to write for children, I see adults who want hand-holding or special treatment. They don't follow the directions for an assignment and when challenged give excuses about how busy they are. Sometimes when we ask a student to redo a lesson, we hear comments such as, "I just want to graduate the course." I want to say, but don't, "So, why did you take the course? To learn to write for children? Or to get a meaningless certificate." If we graduate students without making them do the work, then our teaching, and the course is useless. Hmm, it takes a toddler a lot longer to dress herself than if a parent does it, but she ends up with satisfaction that she did it herself. And the more she practices, the better she gets. I often wonder where the pride in a job well done has gone missing for many adults.

I've also organized a lot of conferences and other events for children's writers and illustrators. Just like there can be deadlines on submitting to editors or agents, we'll have deadlines for early bird discounts, submitting homework or manuscripts, etc. We know everyone is busy, so we send out reminders of those deadlines. But inevitably a number of people miss deadlines and get upset at the organizers, who are volunteers. Keeping track of deadlines is part of the attendees' job--their homework.

Over and over at conferences one will hear attendees asking an editor or agent what type of manuscript they want to see. Often with a laugh the answer is "a well-written manuscript." Yes, the person will usually go on to say what genres appeal the most, etc. But in some ways, what attendees are asking is, "What's the magic to get published?" There isn't any. Just like there's no magic in a baby learning to walk. He tries and fails and tries again. But one day he succeeds and oh, the joy.

Seeing our writing improve because we worked hard can be satisfying. Knowing we did our best to be prepared means we don't have those "if only I'd..." regrets. Doing our homework can help us have intelligent conversations with faculty members. Which reminds me. I have a conference coming up, I'd better get off and do my homework!

Swift Fiction - The Short Story in Focus

image courtesy of
binoculars-100590_1920.jpgA short story isn't just short--it requires focus. (Especially when that short story is for children or teens and the word length is often under 1000 words.) A lot has to be accomplished in a short space: establishing setting, revealing character, getting to the heart of the story, and resolving the problem with a satisfying ending. Focusing on different parts of story works for me as a writer and an instructor. Perhaps it will help you, too.


First, ask yourself these questions: "What's the main character's problem?" and "What will happen if this problem is not solved?" In other words, why does it matter? If there are no consequences, no stakes for the mc in solving the problem, no one will care.

Then move on to thinking how the problem might be solved and what the obstacles are in the mc's way. Other factors to consider are age appropriateness of the problem to fit the main character and whether this problem can be solved in a physically short amount of time. You also might consider who would have this type of problem.

Here's the Number One Rule of Short Stories: The Main Character Needs to Solve the Problem! Really. No acts of God. No coincidences. No secondary character fixing it--especially a parent. A main character can obtain advice, however. No suddenly acquired skills/tools, such as "oh, yeah, she's a karate expert." And, absolutely No Waking Up and Discovering It Was a Dream. (I'm not alone in hating this--it makes us feel cheated.)

Beginning: When I begin writing a short story, my goal is to establish the problem right away. The reader should know something about "what's wrong" on page one. Make trouble for your main character.

Middle: When solving the problem, I sometimes use the power of three--the main character tries several solutions that fail, the third solution works. Or I might show the steps the character has to take. I want this as exciting or interesting as possible. Make more trouble for your mc.

End: When writing for children or teens, the goal is to leave the reader with hope. That means the problem is solved in some way. A story might come full circle to tie end to the beginning. It might be a logical progression. But tell what happened, so the reader knows how the main character solved the problem.

Late one evening at a writers' conference, a large group of writers were sitting together in a circle. About half of them were fiction writers and the other half poets. One of the poets said she'd gotten a bat in her house. A fiction writer asked, "How did you get it out?" All the fiction writers leaned forward. "I can't remember," the poet answered. One by one, the fiction writers got up and left.

Unaware, the poets continued to sit and discuss the poet's feelings about that bat in her house. They asked what she thought it meant. The fiction writers didn't care about either those issues; they wanted to know how the problem was solved. They wanted to learn who the woman was through her experience of getting the bat out of the house. That's our job--to show the character through the experiences of problem solving.


What's the main point you want the reader to learn? What idea or thought do you want as a "take away"? What's the heart of the story? Answering this helps you clarify the direction of your story. If you don't know the answer, it will be harder to reach a satisfying conclusion. Side points in a short story distract--they lead the reader off on a tangent. If you want to have the reader "get" another point, write a second story.


What type of character should you choose?
- the one who has the most to lose
- character who will have changed by the end
- the one who has the ability to solve the problem and bring about a satisfying ending
- the one who tugs at your heat and fascinates you
- the character who would be on-stage for the WHOLE story

Who is this person? You need to know things that will never make it on the page. A bit about her family life, his personality, her likes and dislikes. I love this question I've heard stated in a number of ways: "What is inside him that will make it difficult to solve the story problem?" As Jane Smiley says, "Story reveals character." You need to know something about this person's character so you can reveal it.


Where is your story taking place? In a city apartment? A suburban house? A country school? A park? There are thousands of places to use, but the sense of place needs to be established quickly. There's usually only time to be in one or two places in a short story. (Maybe three.) Often short stories are told in one scene, which means one setting.


Probably one of the hardest things for me to learn, but so important, was "showing versus telling." It helped me to think of it in parts.

Jumping into action can start the story off with a bang and can hook your reader. If a character is only sitting, the story probably won't be very interesting. But if the character is doing something... Consider actions (or places) that put your character in a tense situation.

Let us know what the main character is thinking. For children and teen readers, you'll never be in someone else's head in a scene. (Multiple viewpoint books separate those viewpoints by chapters or sections.) Thoughts can explain dialogue or be counterpoint to dialogue. Either way it gives insights into the main character. Thoughts can reveal things that the character would never say.

Allow the reader to hear the characters talk. Dialogue can add life to your story. It can create tension as characters argue. It can add humor. Think of watching a movie with no one talking--boring!

Show what the main character is feeling. Don't tell--she was mad--but show what she does when she's mad.

Let us see where, when, how this story is happening. More than just setting, this includes sensory details. Use all senses: taste, touch, sound, sight, hearing and temperature. Use specific details--the ones that reveal the most. Think of three that really show something about the place and/or the character. What would he notice? Don't use chunks of description, but mix it into the action.

Showing is using a combination of these elements. It puts the reader on scene and lets them "be there."

I've heard writers say they don't know how to finish a story. For me, knowing the problem, the theme, the main character, setting, and focusing on the story elements, gets me from start to finish. The less I know the harder it is to reach a satisfactory ending.


How do I get started writing for magazines?

1. First, read a variety of children's magazines and determine which magazine(s) appeal to you and which age groups attracts you most.

2. Decide what you are drawn to most: fiction, articles, poetry, activities.

3. Read and analyze lots of those pieces--look at more than one issue of your chosen magazine(s).

4. Check out market books and get guidelines and, if available, theme lists/editorial calendars for the chosen magazine(s). Some guidelines are available on-line. Others you may need to write for, enclosing an SASE.

5. Write your piece in a similar tone as the pieces in the magazine. Make sure it fits the word length, etc. in the guidelines. When it's the best you can make it, submit it. (Don't start with the hard to get into magazines such as Highlights for Children and Cricket--get some publishing experience first.)

6. Move on to writing another manuscript.

Some people call articles stories, while others only refer to fiction as stories. How do I know what's what?

I personally differentiate these two by nonfiction (article or essay) or fiction (story), and of course, each of those categories can be broken down more. That said, I will at times call a piece a "true story" versus an article. That usually happens in response to a magazine looking for "true stories about..." Sometimes these are also called true experiences.

When submitting a manuscript, I usually indicate "article" or "nonfiction" for those true stories and "fiction based on a true story" or "fiction" on those I've made up.

Should I always send a cover letter with my submission?

I don't. The reasons I do are:

1. The magazine requests manuscripts with a cover letter.

2. I have more information I want them to know (e.g. why I wrote the piece, or my submission fits a theme, etc.).

3. It might be pertinent for them to know my other writing experience and I don't think a full résumé is needed.

What do I say in a cover letter?

1. Grab the reader with something exciting - this may be a direct quote from the manuscript, or a catchy line or something about the theme of your piece.

2. Give a brief summary of your story, essay, article.

3. Tell title, genre, word count and rights you are offering. If reprint rights*, tell where and when it has appeared.

4. Mention anything special you are including: color slides, digital photos, sidebars, related websites, etc.

5. Include your writing credits: either "I'm enclosing my résumé" or a list of some magazines you've been published in. Don't apologize for not having credits. Don't say you're a first time writer.

6. Bring up other issues that might be important. For example, if a story or article is set in a particular town and you lived there, tell the editor so. If you have experience in a particular job, craft, or hobby, and it relates to your piece, say so.

7. If sending a manuscript by snail mail, mention you've included a self-addressed stamped envelope. You may want to include an SASE for their reply instead of for the return of the manuscript. I found I was reprinting manuscripts all the time anyway, and can save postage by sending a smaller SASE. Some publishers are now only replying with acceptances, which in that case you can state something like, "I understand you only reply if interested. You may discard this copy of the manuscript." This information is usually available through their guidelines.

Note: If sending a manuscript electronically, make sure you follow the directions of "pasted the manuscript into body of the email" or "attachment" as the guidelines say.

8. Close.

Overall, remember to be brief, professional and to the point.

Is writing for children's magazines for everyone?

Of course not. But it might be for you!

*Want to know more about magazine rights? Read this post.

(image courtesy of and

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?