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How to write: Ten differences between writing for children and adults from KJ Whittaker



Carnegie-nominated YA author Katy Moran has also published False Lights, a novel for adults, as K J Whittaker

1. The crucial difference between writing for adults and children is that there is no difference: no difference in depth of meaning, and no difference in sophistication or complexity.

2. BUT (don’t panic: every writing tip has a caveat) there are some practical differences that are well worth your attention. Length is one. As a former YA author, I get to 70,000 words and wonder why I’m nowhere near the end, because my adult novels are closer to 100,000 words in length. In the adult market length can vary a lot from genre to genre, but if you want to write for children, it’s really important to have a good handle on how long your story needs to be for the particular age group you’re writing for.

3. Picture books are the easiest, right? It’s only a handful of words. Oh no. Picture books are a standard format, 32 pages long, and 600 words is a useful aiming point, but every word counts. I have tried and failed to write picture books – I can’t manage the crucial combination of poetic clarity and deceptive simplicity that reveals a deeper meaning. In the bookshop where I work, we are quite often sent samples of self-published children’s picture books with far too much text on the page.

4. When are you going to write a ‘proper book’? This can be infuriating, but people tend to take those who write for adults more seriously. Since moving from YA to adult, I have yet to be asked ‘So, are you the next JK Rowling yet?’, or ‘Will I have heard of your books?’. If you write for children, be prepared to face patronising questions.

5. Who is the focus of your novel? One of the unchangeable differences between books for adults and those for younger readers is that adult books can have child characters – Esther Freud’s Hideous Kinky is told from a very young child’s point of view – but books for children and teenagers must focus on characters only slightly older than their readers. Children prefer to read about characters slightly older than themselves, so if you are writing for a Middle Grade/9-12 audience, your protagonist will likely be 12 or 13.

6. If you write for children rather than adults, you need a stronger handle on what’s currently in the shops. A lot of people make the mistake of writing the sort of children’s book that was popular when they themselves were children. I don’t believe in chasing particular publishing trends, like a craze for books about dragons, for example, but if you want to write for young people you need to read a lot of current children’s books, because…

7. … tone is so important. Over the years, I’ve seen quite a few aspiring children’s authors employing an arch tone in writing they submit to publishers – it’s almost as if they themselves are not taking it seriously. Those writing for adults tend not to make this mistake.

8. Subject matter. There is very little that has not been or cannot be covered by writers for children and particularly teenagers, even topics that at first glance might belong solely to adults. In truth, it is the way authors approach a subject that makes the difference. The inimitable Babette Cole dealt with sex and puberty in masterful style in her picture books, Mummy Laid an Egg and Hair in Funny Places, and Michael Rosen’s Sad Book processes grief with as much eloquence as H is for Hawk or The Year of Magical Thinking.

9. Swearing! Swearing is, of course, off limits in books for children, and contentious even in YA because sales departments fear returns from angry parents and librarians. This is ridiculous when you think of how much many teenagers swear, but also one area in which authors must deal with reality, and the disapproval of gatekeepers is a reality of publishing. Writing my first book for adults, I took great delight in allowing the characters who would swear to indulge in all manner of profanity. I enjoyed it a bit too much, in fact – swearing is very loud on the page, and I actually weeded out a few f-bombs at first proof stage.

10. Plot – personally, I think plot is important for all writers, but the fact is that it is more so in some adult genres than others. Literary novels are free to meander along with perhaps a little less propulsion than the thriller or crime novel, but the best books for children and teenagers run on a powerful plotting engine. With literacy at school often focusing on overly complicated and technically questionable grammatical terms, young readers are now subject to so much that can put them off reading for life. They need and deserve books that will draw them in instantly, utterly absorbing from the first page.


K J Whittaker is the Carnegie-nominated author of six YA novels published by Walker Books under the name Katy Moran. Katy has a BA in English Language and Literature, an MA in Novel Writing and has been part of the book trade for two decades, working as bookseller, editor, talent scout reader, creative writing teacher and author – sometimes all at the same time! She works part-time in a bookshop and lives in Shropshire with her family. Website: www.kjwhittaker.co.uk

False Lights, her first book for adults, is published by Head of Zeus. The paperback version is out now.


To learn more about writing for children, take a look at our tutor-led writing course and gain new knowledge and skills to help improve your writing. 


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