March 7, 2015

5 common mistakes in writing nonfiction for kids

Each year when I read the entries in the children’s literature category of the international writing contest sponsored annually by, I hope to find well-written nonfiction articles and interesting book chapters excerpted from dynamic nonfiction. Some do arrive, while others seem promising until 5 common flaws start to appear.

1. In an obvious effort to be fresh and lively, many writers start their nonfiction for children with scenes straight out of a novel. For example, they might begin with dialogue, a problem, a child’s thoughts, or an amusing conversation that reads like the opening of a sit-com. Often, a main character asks a grandparent about a subject soon to be addressed but, unfortunately, not nearly soon enough. These novel openings sound good at first but quickly bring confusion since readers will rarely be able to tell what the subject is until they have read an entire page or two or three.

2. Another problem arises with credibility and accuracy – or lack thereof. With no bibliography to cite sources at the end of a manuscript, no one knows if the author has spent weeks searching, sorting, and sifting through reliable information or passed along opinions and assumptions as fact.

3. A more common flaw occurs in the quality of writing. For instance, passive voice seems particularly prevalent with phrase after phrase stating, “It is” or “There was.” Such a passive voice seems to speak for a passive writer, who did not take time to search for active verbs and strong nouns that readers can readily picture.

4. Speaking of pictures, young readers need to be able to envision what they’re reading whether the pages contain illustrations or not. For the writing to be clear, each sentence usually needs an easy-to-picture noun that brings to mind a person, place, or thing, but not a vague idea. An active verb can then put that noun into motion. If the nonfiction manuscript happens to be the text for a children’s picture book, those mental images on every page become vital or, voila, no picture book.

5. That seems obvious, and, fortunately, so do some solutions to each of the problems mentioned. Most writers have fine minds and can figure these things out for themselves once they recognize a problem or even know to look for one. What often happens, though, is that we get caught up in stories we can’t wait to share with our children or grandchildren, forgetting they’re right there beside us with their own interests and preferences, waiting for the next enticing subject they can connect with and enjoy.

©2015, Mary Harwell Sayler, all rights reserved. This article first appeared as “Writing Winner Nonfiction For Kids,” posted on 2010/07/10.

If you would like one-on-one help with your book proposal, children’s picture book, poems, or devotionals, visit Critique & Contact for information and pricing. For general help with your writing, revising, and more, order the Christian Writers’ Guide e-book.

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