Writing

How to Write for Kids: 10 Tips From Legendary Children’s Author R.L. Stine

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Sep 24, 2019 • 6 min read

The literary world is filled with a lot of misconceptions about books for young people. Far too many writers incorrectly assume that these works—whether young children’s books or young adult literature—must serve to teach morality or subtly infuse academic concepts.

In truth, young readers want the same thing that adult readers want: a great story, memorable characters, fluid use of language, perhaps a little humor, and even some thrills.

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R.L. Stine Teaches Writing for Young AudiencesR.L. Stine Teaches Writing for Young Audiences

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Why Should You Write for Children?

Perhaps the single-most compelling reason for writing children’s books is that there’s a higher percentage of regular readers among children than among adults.

Another reason to consider writing for children is that there’s an immense array of topics available for children’s authors. From fantasy to mystery to comedy to sports to espionage to horror, most children like the same array of topics as adults.

5 Different Categories of Children’s Books

Children’s books are frequently organized by the age of the target audience.

  1. Picture books are typically written from children ranging from a few months old all the way up to age 4. As the age of the intended reader gets older, a picture book’s word count gets higher. Baby books tend to have 300 words or fewer. By the time children are in preschool, they are able to handle upwards of 1,000 words and may be able to do some rudimentary reading on their own.
  2. Early reader books target youths aged 5-7. These readers are in the early stages of elementary school—kindergarten, first grade, and second grade. A primary focus of these grades is teaching independent reading, and so these books are designed to be read without adult assistance. Sometimes known as children’s storybooks, they tend to have a healthy amount of illustrations. The word count of these books can range from 1,000 all the way to roughly 5,000.
  3. Chapter books (sometimes called “young readers books”) are, as their name suggests, subdivided into chapters. They are aimed at children aged 6-9 (or roughly 1st through 4th grades). They tend to be capped around 10,000 words, but they can introduce progressively challenging vocabulary words.
  4. Middle grade books are for late elementary schoolers and early middle schoolers—think ages 9-12. They are another step up from chapter books, and tend to have more challenging vocabulary, few illustrations, and upwards of 60,000 words. Children this age can appreciate humor, mystery, and even small thrills.
  5. Young adult (YA) novels target older teens and even adults. They tend to have teenage protagonists but many adult characters. Genres expand further here, including fantasy and science fiction. YA novels can push beyond 100,000 words.
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R.L. Stine’s 10 Tips on Writing for Children

Robert Lawrence Stine, better known as R.L. Stine, is one of the most recognized authors of children’s horror novels alive today. He’s been called “the Stephen King of children’s literature” and has penned more than 300 books for kids aged 7 to 15 years old.

Below he offers a number of essential tips to keep in mind if you want to learn to start writing for children. Consider these principles when developing your own writing skills. Don’t forget to utilize creative writing prompts as often as possible. Professionals throughout the children’s publishing industry—from executives to editors to your fellow children’s book writers—keep these ideas in mind when they’re evaluating the work of new authors.

  1. Don’t worry about moral lessons. People think that everything written for children needs to have some sort of moral lesson. But it’s good to remember that some books can have entertainment as their goal. Adults have the freedom to read whatever they like. Why aren’t children sometimes afforded the privilege to read for kicks alone?
  2. Kids want to be entertained. Be aware of this double standard as you enter into the world of children’s literature. Kids want to be entertained, and you are competing with movies and technology in an unprecedented way. You need to write something they’ll want to read as much as watching something on their iPad. Approach your novel with this in mind, and you just might get a kid hooked on reading.
  3. Tune in to your target audience. In order to entertain, you have to be tuned in to your target age group. Middle-grade books are generally aimed at kids aged seven to 12 years old, and young adult or “YA” fiction is geared toward 11 to 15-year-olds. Interestingly enough, a huge number of adults now read YA novels—which is also something to keep in mind.
  4. Kids like to read about kids who are just slightly older than them. Most of the characters in Goosebumps novels are 12-year-olds, and the characters in Fear Street books are usually between 16 and 18.
  5. Hang out with kids as much as possible. If you have kids of your own, pay attention to what they and their friends find interesting. If you know teachers, talk to them. Ask your friends and family about their kids, and what they like to do. Volunteer at schools or other appropriate venues. Kids are smart, and they can immediately sense if something they’re reading is out of touch. Avoid specific pop culture references when possible.
  6. If you can pull it off, kids make the best fans. Children have a deep desire to live inside the books they read. Create a world they can’t wait to go back to and you’ve developed a captive audience that’s difficult to replicate among adults.
  7. Keep your target audience in mind when coming up with themes. When writing middle-grade fiction, you want to entertain young people with creepy, spooky stories—not terrify them entirely. No one in R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series ever dies. There are no guns, and if there’s a ghost, it’s from a death that occurred long before the story took place. For the most part, real-life terror should be kept out of middle-grade horror. Readers need to be aware of that the monsters are fantasies, not reality. It’s possible to build much scarier narratives when kids feel confident that none of the frightening things could happen to them in real life.
  8. Keep your stories full of short, descriptive sentences. Kids don’t have to learn new words or struggle to get through a passage. There’s nothing to keep them from reading on to the next chapter. So be aware of your readers’ vocabulary level. The difference between a nine- and 15-year-old’s reading ability is often staggering, and you have to write in such a way that kids find your story both interesting and accessible.
  9. The opposite principle applies to YA horror. You want it to feel “real,” as you are writing for a much more sophisticated audience. R.L. Stine jokes that in Fear Street he “kills off a lot of teenagers.” In order to scare this age group, they have to believe that everything that’s happening is real.
  10. YA horror comes with its own set of rules. If you choose to pursue YA horror, you’ll need to make a decision about how far you are willing to go with language, violence, and sex. R.L. Stine’s YA material doesn’t have sex scenes (he jokes that there’s lots of “heavy kissing”). However, other authors are taking things further these days, and the standards are constantly changing. See what’s out there and determine which end of the spectrum you’d likely find yourself.

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Want to Become a Better Writer?

Whether you’re writing as an artistic exercise or trying to get the attention of publishing houses, learning how to craft a good children’s story takes time and patience. Horror-writing legend and author of the Goosebumps and Fear Street series R.L. Stine has spent decades honing his craft. In R.L. Stine’s MasterClass on writing for young audiences, he explores how to conquer writer’s block, develop plots, and build nail-biting suspense that will thrill readers.

Want to become a better writer? The MasterClass All-Access Pass provides exclusive video lessons on plot, character development, creating suspense, and more, all taught by literary masters, including R.L. Stine, Neil Gaiman, Dan Brown, Margaret Atwood, Joyce Carol Oates, and more.

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