Children's Writing Pitfalls - Words

I wrote a fantasy story originally geared toward middle grade. Realizing the word count wasn’t enough for a middle grade story, I changed it to a chapter book.

Good idea, right?

Yes, it was.

But if you do something like this, you need to remember to check the age appropriateness of the words you originally used.

You might ask why this necessary…well, it’s the difference between an editor giving your story a second glance, or not.

It’s so important that publishers will ask what grade level your book is geared toward. You had better make sure the vocabulary of your story and the intended audience are a match.

What exactly do I mean? Let’s use an example:

The boy performed an amazing illusion. Was it an illusion or real magic?

If you were writing this for a 6th grader, the word illusion would be fine, but say you are writing for a 2nd or 3rd…then you’ll need to change that word.

According to “Children’s Writer’s Word Book,” ‘illusion’ is in the 6th grader’s vocabulary. You would need to change it to a word such as trick or fake to make it age appropriate for a 3rd grader.

The use of words goes far beyond that of choosing age appropriate words, they can be revised to say the same thing in a different way.
Words are so amazing – just make sure yours are just right for the age group you’re writing for.

Taking this a little further, even if you're writing a young adult novel, choose words carefully.

I'm working with a client who has words in his draft that not most teens, and even many adult readers won't understand. You don't want a reader to have to stop and look up a word while reading. This is never a good thing.

When writing for children, teens, and young adults, don't use high-end words. Use words that everyone will be able to quickly recognize and understand.

To emphasis this, here are some quotes on the topic by famous authors:

"Use familiar words—words that your readers will understand, and not words they will have to look up. No advice is more elementary, and no advice is more difficult to accept. When we feel an impulse to use a marvelously exotic word, let us lie down until the impulse goes away."
~James J. Kilpatrick

"The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do."
~Thomas Jefferson

"A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts."
~William Strunk and E.B. White

"Use the smallest word that does the job."
~E.B. White

"Think like a wise man but communicate in the language of the people." ~William Butler Yeats

"The finest words in the world are only vain sounds if you can’t understand them. ~Anatole France

“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is … the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”
~Mark Twain

The finest language is mostly made up of simple unimposing words." ~George Eliot

"Whenever we can make 25 words do the work of 50, we halve the area in which looseness and disorganisation can flourish."
~Wilson Follett

"Don't use words too big for the subject. Don't say 'infinitely' when you mean 'very'; otherwise you'll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite."
~C. S. Lewis

This article was originally published at:

Karen Cioffi is an award-winning children's author and a working children's ghostwriter. She is also the founder and editor-in-chief of Writers on the Move as well as an online author platform instructor with WOW! Women on Writing.

Check out Karen's latest children's fantasy picture book that helps enlighten children to the environment around them: The Case of the Plastic Rings - The Adventures of Planetman.


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Terry Whalin said...


Thank you for this valuable post about the importance of word choice in children's books. The age group you are going to reach with your children's book is very defined in the children's market so word choice is critical (along with other factors such as length, number of illustrations and other factors).

Many writers fail to get educated on the various distinctions of the children's market and that is one of the key reasons their submission (or published book) doesn't hit the mark in my view.


Jams and Books said...

Right, age makes a big difference for children’s stories. There are word lists online for Lexile levels and many states have a site membership, so words may be checked there. Or ask an elementary teacher. Excellent reminder! Very important information.

Carolyn Howard-Johnson said...

I hope people interested in writing for children get all of your great advice by buying your book! Please supply the URL here, @Karencv!

Karen Cioffi said...

Terry, it's so true that there are a number of factors involved in writing for children that new children's authors should take the time to learn about. Hopefully this article and so many others in cyberspace will help them.

Karen Cioffi said...

Carolyn W, thanks for bringing up Lexile levels. I wrote short stories for two online reading comprehension sites and had to use Lexile levels before submitting. It's a great tool for children's writers.

Karen Cioffi said...

Carolyn H-J, thank you so much for all your reminders about marketing our books. I'm always in such a rush that I didn't realize my How to Write a Children's Fiction Book would have been the perfect ending to the post. For those who'd like to check the book out, you can find details at

deborah lyn said...

Fantastic post, Karen. Words are really so amazing! and we really don't "want a reader to have to stop and look up a word while reading. This is never a good thing."
Thank you much, deborah

Perfect resource, I agree:
How to Write a Children's Fiction Book

Karen Cioffi said...

Deborah, thank you so much for sharing my book info page! I love words-put them together and you can go back in history, into space, on an adventure ...

lastpg said...

I've read your terrific book on how to write for children and only wish I could have had a copy when I started out! You covered our craft thoroughly. Any writer, new or experience, can benefit from your book. There is so much to know! Great post, Karen!

Karen Cioffi said...

Linda, thank you so much. I complied the information for years for the book, from personal experience and from a number of resources. I'm so glad it's helpful!

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