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Writing for children’s magazines

By Mary J. Nickum
You may not have considered writing for the children’s magazine market, but perhaps you should. Children’s magazines are growing in number, especially with the advent of the e-zine, which is particularly attractive to a younger tech-savvy generation.
Magazine Markets for Children’s Writers 2010” provides submission information for more than 650 children’s magazines.
As with adult magazines, children’s magazines publish many types of articles, including fiction, nonfiction, how-to, word puzzles and other learning activities. Articles are sought on a variety of topics for readers aged 3-to 12-years-old. Article lengths for the 3- to 6-year-olds are usually no more than 400 words; 400-800 words for 7- to 9-year-olds; and 500-1200 words for 10- to 12-year-olds. These word counts are strictly enforced, but vary considerably from one magazine to another.
Currently, many magazine editors say they’d like to see more nonfiction, as well as craft projects and word puzzles, for publications geared toward 3- to 9-year-olds. How-to and how-things-work articles are especially sought for 7- to 12-year-olds. Teaching children the way to do or understand something you know well is an excellent way to break into a magazine market. Not only are how-to and how-things-work articles fairly easy to put together, your personal enthusiasm will fuel reader interest.
It is important to remember readers don’t know your topic as well as you do. If you’ve been writing for adults and this is your first foray into writing for children, it is easy to assume your readers know the basics. Young readers may not. They may not know relevant terms. They may find a project doesn’t work because you left out a fundamental step, one that is simple and obvious to you but not to them. Never rely on editors to uncover errors or gaps in an article or project. If your piece isn’t well-written with clear explanations, your chances for a sale will drop to nil.
Although many writers want to create enduring children’s fiction, they’re much more likely to sell a nonfiction piece. Juvenile magazines do publish a fair amount of short stories, but they’re generally outnumbered by articles and activities. An increasing number of magazines focus on nonfiction topics, such as science, nature and technology. Interestingly, most editors want nonfiction that reads like well-written short stories. The best juvenile magazines run articles that paint vivid pictures of historical events, or use colorful, down-to-earth imagery to explain a scientific phenomenon. Children want to hear the crash as Thomas Edison’s prototype lightbulb shatters on the floor.
To begin, you need to put aside any preconceived notions about childhood. The world has changed since your own formative years. Children are a lot more sophisticated these days and they want articles relevant to their world. Pastimes and hobbies may be a lot different, too. Small-town kids may still visit the old swimming hole in the summer, but suburban and urban youngsters are more likely to play youth soccer or take to the streets with their skateboards. You need to familiarize yourself with what kids are doing if you want to write for them. Borrow a friend’s children, teach a Sunday school class, coach a sports team or eavesdrop in the children’s section of the local bookstore – anything to get an idea of what kids are like.
Keep in mind before you sit down to write, that today’s children are computer literate and visually perceptive. Raised on video games and MTV, modern kids aren’t going to sit still for a story that doesn’t grab them right away. (Truth be told, they never did!)
Editors look for the same things you look for in adult writing: a solid plot, interesting characters, humor, sharp detail and good research. One of the most common mistakes is writing down to children – being too sweet, jaunty or didactic. Children don’t want to be patronized or instructed. Also, talking animals or other anthropomorphic devices are not recommended.
Nature is a perennial favorite, but most magazines already have backlogs of articles about really interesting animals or fascinating natural phenomena. It’s not that these ideas can’t make good reading, it’s that they need a new approach. The worst crime of all is to try to wedge in some kind of moral. If there’s a lesson to be learned, fine, but you have to show it, not tell it.
Here, then, are eight easy steps to writing articles for children:

  1. Choose a topic. It should be something of interest to many children. It should also be something you know well or are interested in learning more about.
  2. Narrow your topic. Concentrate on just one aspect of it.
  3. Research your article. Use online resources, books and articles.
  4. Organize your research. Jot down the main points you want to make, then go through your notes and plug them into your outline.
  5. Write the article. Decide what age you are writing for, and then try to keep your writing on that level. The “Children’s Writer’s Word Book” is a valuable resource for this step. MSWord is also equipped with the Fleisch-Kincaid grade level scale. The scale bases its rating on the average number of syllables per word and words per sentence. You can access this through the Spelling and Grammar Tool.
  6. Revise and edit your article. To make sure it flows smoothly, read it aloud to yourself or to willing family and friends.
  7. Research the markets. Get a copy of “Children’s Writer’s” and “Illustrator’s Market” or research children’s magazine publishers online.
  8. Submit your article. Then get busy writing another one.

That’s all there is to it. It’s really not different from writing articles for adult magazines. The basic procedure is the same. The only things that need additional consideration are reading level and magazine titles specific to children. ◊
Mary Nickum, of Fountain Hills, Ariz., has been an OWAA member since 2000. Her children’s chapter book, “Mom’s Story, A Child Learns About MS,” is available from amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com as well as her website: www.marynickum.com. Contact her at mjnickum@hotmail.com.
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