When writing for adults, a writer can basically write whatever she wants, the way she wants. She can use big words or little words, simple sentences, compound sentences, or complex sentences. She can even write sentences three pages long. The expectation is that most adults will be able to read and understand it.
But writing for children isn’t that easy. While adults are all lumped into one category, children aren’t. There are the board book and picture book crowds, beginning readers, kids starting chapter books, middle-grade readers, tweens and teens, and hi-lo’s. There are even sub-groups of upper and lower middle-grade and teen readers. All these kids read at different levels and have different levels of understanding.
One way to determine if you’re writing at the correct reading level is to use the Flesch-Kincaid Readability program. If you use Word, it will usually pop up after you do a spelling and grammar check. If it doesn’t, check the spelling of a word, and when the box opens, click options. When the options page comes up,go down the list and check off ‘show readability statistics.’ Aside from giving you word counts, it will give you the reading level you’ve written for, as well as a percentage that indicates how easy the piece is to read, and the percentage of passive writing it contains. (This paragraph has a 9.2 reading level, which means a ninth grader should be able to read and understand it. It has a 66.5% ease of readability level, which means I could probably write it much better. You want to shoot for the 90's. Let’s see.)
The Flesch-Kincaid Readability Program helps you determine what reading level you are writing at. If you use Word, it should pop up after you run the spelling and grammar check. If it doesn’t, check the spelling of a word, click options, then go down the list and check ‘show readability statistics.’ It will give you word counts, reading level, and the percentage of passive writing your piece contains. (I’ve lowered the reading level to 7.8 –middle school instead of high school, and I’ve increased the readability level to 69.1% - better, although not much better.)
Other programs may also make this available, but I’m not familiar with them. But if you can’t find the program on your computer, you can always google it and use the on-line version. Run it through something you’ve written and see where the piece stands. As you use it more and more, you’ll figure out how to easily knock a grade level or two off a piece, usually by just substituting one word for another, or by making a sentence less complex. This is easier in fiction than it is in
If you’re writing nonfiction about porcupines, you have to say porcupine. 10.1 Reading Level
If you’re writing fiction about a strange pet, you can turn your porcupine into a skunk. 7.6
If you’re writing fiction, you could just write about a duck. 4.7
But what if you are writing nonfiction about porcupines? How do you get the reading level down? Substitute the offensive word with something simple like duck, and if the piece suddenly drops to a 5th grade reading level, put the word porcupine back in and don’t worry about it. It’s just that one word, which a kid will remember after reading it the first time. But if you still have a high reading level, then you probably have issues in other places as well.
Sentence structure will also change your reading level.
John raced around the track, running as fast as his legs would carry him. 4.1
As fast as his legs would carry him, John raced around the track. 3.0
John raced as fast as his legs would carry him around the track. 3.0
John ran around the track. He raced as fast as his legs would carry him. 0.7
There are lots of ways to say the same thing. Your goal as a children’s writer should be to say it as clearly as you can, and at the appropriate reading level for your audience. Flesch-Kincaid will help you do that.