Communicating to a young audience
Ever since the early 1700s, when the first books for young people were written by authors including John Newbery, Thomas Boreman, and Thomas and Mary Cooper, communicators have endeavoured to target young audiences with specific products.
Non-fiction writing for young people has seen a surge in titles over recent decades, with more than 60,000 English-language children’s books in print globally. In addition to the myriad book titles for young people and magazines specifically for young readers (for example, The Helix in Australia, Owl and Chickadee in Canada, and Super Science in the United States), a number of publishers have launched younger versions of their science magazines, including National Geographic (with National Geographic Kids).
Drawing on our experience as authors of popular science books for young people aged between 10 and 14, as writers of science text books for high school students, and our experience editing science magazines, here are our views of what grabs the attention of young people (and what doesn’t).
There is one school of thought that writing for young people is harder than writing for an adult audience, because it is difficult to convey complicated topics in simple language. Another school of thought is that writing for a young audience is easier because of the shorter manuscript length or for other reasons. However, I believe that good writing for young people should be similar to good writing for adult audiences.
Adults enjoy fictional stories that involve humour, fantasy, surprises, characters that they can relate to, winning in the face of adversity, and a bit of mischief. Young people like the same elements in their stories, but set against a slightly different scenario or frame of reference.
Similarly, writing non-fiction for young people should be like writing non-fiction for an older audience. Young people are more sophisticated than we think (or remember), so writers need to treat them with respect. Writing for a young audience should be viewed as writing for yourself, covering topics that interest you in a language that you find engaging. Story-telling is paramount, as engaging writing must be about more than simply imparting knowledge. However, it is necessary to use common sense to keep an eye on the language and analogies you use, as a young reader’s understanding of language may lag their understanding of concepts.
Language should be clear and concise but creative and colourful; it should contain information but be lively and rich. You need to avoid jargon and acronyms. However, you can introduce new words by using tautologies or repetitious language: use the new word, then repeat the concept using a synonym, and then maybe use another term to define clearly its meaning. This will drive home the meaning of the new word or concept.
Explanations using analogies will need to be appropriate. Young people are unlikely to have experienced some of the things adults use as reference points, such as driving a car. Find an alternative.
Use a combination of male and female role models in photographs or as characters in your writing. The age of role models should about two to three years older than the target audience to give young readers someone to look up to.
Aim to illustrate your writing with photos rather than drawings if you require realism. From an early age, our eyes are drawn more to realistic images than illustrations. However, cartoons will work as they characterise a scene and do not intend to illustrate through realism as some illustrations aim to do.
Describe science in progress, unsolved problems, and challenges that young readers can play a part in solving. This will enable young people to dream. They will feel they have a role to play in the future, that they could become a famous scientist or even a Nobel Prize winner. Discoveries and research should be described as a world of possibility to which young readers can contribute.
We’ll develop these thoughts further – and provide tips on what not to do – in blog posts over the coming fortnight.
Open with a bang.
Further to our suggestions in part one of this topic, start a non-fiction book with a story that captures an event such as an amazing discovery, just as fiction starts with an action scene. You could also include fascinating facts to grab attention. The ‘Wow factor’ should not only start your book or article, but be threaded throughout it.
While it can be tempting to think that writing for young people should be sanitised and without shock, I believe it should be quite the opposite. Young people love to be grossed out with information about blood, gore, and bodily functions, and embarrassing situations or shocking disasters.
As well as gore, weird science stories grab attention, as do mysteries, and record-breaking stories (the first, biggest, oldest, and most dangerous).
Accuracy is paramount. Before submitting work to an editor or publisher, ensure you have checked the facts and accuracy of your writing with the talent you have interviewed, and from an independent source through other contacts or from encyclopaedic references or reliable web sites.
Activities lead to understanding. A quote by Confucius is, “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.” The illustration of concepts using hands-on experiments and activities that can be tried (safely) at home can increase the learning experience gained from reading a science book. The activity needs to be carefully explained and safe.
The use of fiction, or a combination of fact and fiction, can be a successful way to convey science. For example, an entertaining, fictional story can carry scientific information, so that the facts are delivered using a ‘Trojan horse’ method. Such a method enables learning to occur in an entertaining and subtle way through information absorption. As well as enabling learning to occur in a fun way, the faction genre also enables exaggeration, contraction of time, or the creation of hypothetical situations that can better illustrate facts and information. Our Who Dun It series of books (published by Pan Macmillan) incorporate forensic science into a fictional plot, with fact boxes and activities. The aim is to show that science is used in everyday situations by following the adventures of two 11 year-old characters, Zac and Hannah, as they solve a crime using forensic science skills.
Our Who Dun It books combine a number of elements used in writing for a young audience:
- creative language and story structure in which to embed further factual information;
- factual information in boxes;
- activities and experiments to illustrate forensic science;
- photos to illustrate equipment or other new ideas; and
- cartoons to illustrate the plot.
Fiction can add more variety and a wider choice for young people interested in reading and learning about science. By using creative writing rather than encyclopaedic styles, science writers can increase the entertainment element in their products and remove the divide between perceptions of fictional reading that is seen as ‘fun’ and non-fiction reading that is seen as ‘school homework’.
What not to do
Just as important as understanding what to do when writing for young people is to understand what not to do.
Talking down to young people would possibly be the number one crime in writing for this audience. They’ll pick up on any condescension. While being conscious of vocabulary, you can still use rich and evocative words and phrases to excite young audiences about science.
Unless you actually are 13 years old, don’t try to talk like one. It’s unlikely that you’ll have the most up-to-date terms, and will come across as a fraud and a try-hard. It is very uncool to try to be cool. And even if you were to succeed, by the time your book is published, the language will have moved on.
Educating rather than entertaining is a trap for non-fiction writers. Magazines and books that young people read in their spare time should be enjoyable and entertaining. It is then a bonus if they learn anything as a result (if they find the reading fun, this is more likely). An exception to this rule is to consider a teachers’ guide or to highlight curriculum links to provide ideas on how an enjoyable, spare-time activity can be related to classroom learning.
Humour should be used with caution, as trying too hard to be funny will often result in jokes falling flat. However, I’m a fan of relevant puns.
Using talking animals may seem like a good idea, and remind you of your own childhood. However, the scenarios can be unrealistic and the characters under-developed or cliché. Leave these characters to the cartoons and puppet shows.
As in any writing, aim to show; don’t tell.
Finally, never try to publish work that has not been tested. I am too old to remember what I found enjoyable as a child. If you don’t have an appropriately-aged reader in your family to use as a reference point, ensure you have available at least one proof-reader who is the age of your intended reader. If you don’t have children in the intended audience range, run your ideas and writing past relatives or friends who are the correct age. They will not only be helpful in testing your drafted text, but also a source of inspiration for future writing. And they will feel proud to have helped your production (and will be rapt with an acknowledgement inside the book).
In closing, while writing tips are useful, it is important to develop your own style. Ensure you have a strong voice in your head that is relaxed and unique to you as you write.