The Most Important Writing Tip You’ll Ever Learn

You may be surprised to learn that fiction editors do not spend all their time editing fiction. In fact, editors have so many other duties that an editor is lucky to spend half of every day immersed in a manuscript; some can only squeeze it in one day a week, at home or on the weekends.

Although I don’t have it as bad as most, I do spend a lot of my time not editing and instead writing marketing copy—for a book’s online listing, for a promotional article on our website, for the book jacket, for special documents meant for sales reps’ eyes only.

Marketing copywriting (or as some people call it content marketing) is a special skill, with its own tricks of the trade. But the other day, as I was polishing up an online article, I realized that no matter what you’re writing, be it fiction or ads or blog posts or headlines, there is one writing rule that rules us all:

Know Your Audience!

We’ve all seen Mad Men. Don Draper lives and breathes this rule. Copywriters, content marketers, ad writers all live by it. But it’s sometimes easy to forget that this rule isn’t just for salesmen out to schmooze us into a Kodachrome slide projector we didn’t know we wanted. Even if you’re writing fiction for kids, you must live by this rule too.

You may think writing fiction is all about you—your story to tell, your characters to breathe to life, your brand, your career.

You’re wrong.

It’s also about your readers. If you don’t know who you’re writing for, then you will never get very far in writing for kids.

Don Draper knows his audience. Do you?

Don Draper knows his audience. Do you?

Children’s Book Writing 101

On one level, this is children’s book writing 101. Children’s book writers have to know their audience, because the category itself is sub-divided into specific age groups and formats. You’ll never sell a picture book written for 14 year olds. A YA novel about a four year old? Welcome to the 150-rejection-letter club. [What, you say, there are categories? See here!]

Sometimes you don’t know what kind of book you’re writing at first—or the kind of children’s book writer you are. I’ve critiqued picture books that long to be middle-grade novels. I’ve read some novels that would be better off as short stories. Don’t be afraid to figure it out as you go. Just don’t make the mistake of submitting something to an editor or an agent, until you’re very sure who your story is for, and how it fits into the marketplace.

Who Are Your Readers?

It’s not just about format and age group. It goes much deeper than that. What do your readers long for? What kinds of problems do they have? What kind of world do they live in? What’s important to them?

Part of understanding all that is understanding kids today. If you aren’t around kids in your daily life, watch TV shows and movies for kids; read other books written for kids. Volunteer at a local school. Immerse yourself in a modern kids’ reality. Even if you’re writing historical fiction, this is important. You may be writing about the kids of 1914, but you’re writing for the kids of 2014.

Who Are You?

The other part is about you. It’s more than a little cliché but at the risk of causing you to vomit on your screen, I dare say: get in touch with your inner child. Are you a 13 year old at heart? Do the memories and hopes of a kindergartener resonate with you? Many children’s books authors never had kids (Maurice Sendak, Margaret Wise Brown, Dr. Seuss, and many more). But their vivid memories and understanding of the emotional life of a child are what has made their writing stand the test of time.

As the famous children’s book editor, Ursula Nordstrom replied when asked what qualified her to edit books for kids: “I am a former child, and I haven’t forgotten a thing.”

1 thought on “The Most Important Writing Tip You’ll Ever Learn

  • Thank you for this great post, Nina. Making it about “you” is so easy to fall into as an author. I also find one of the biggest challenges in writing for children is word selection – introducing challenging words that are still audience-appropriate. Such a delicate balance!

    This was very helpful.

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