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Writer’s Craft #7 – Vocab for young readers

February 14, 2011

I received an inquiry, by e-mail, about what sort of vocabulary is appropriate for young adult novels. So I asked my friend and fellow author Leslie Carmichael who writes for young people.


Leslie Carmichael Here’s what Leslie ( http://www.lesliecarmichael.ca/) had to say:

I’ve been mulling over your question for a couple of days, and I’m not sure that I can help with vocabulary for age groups. I tend not to “write down” for kids. My books use words like “terse”, “obdurate”, “furtively”, “pungent”, etc. I figure part of my job is to increase vocabulary. The books are suitable for kids 8 and up, and adults seem to like them, too.
The June B. Jones books by Barbara Park are written in a style that uses words that much younger kids (preschoolers) might use — “runded” instead of “ran”, etc. They’re for beginning readers.


Hunting for recommended vocab by age group, I discovered “Children’s Writer’s Word Book” (http://www.amazon.com/Childrens-Writers-Word-Alijandra-Mogilner/dp/1582974136) which bases its recommendations on grade levels and/or age groups. Sounds like a useful resource, as reviews say it focuses on what publishers are looking for. But clearly there are different opinions on this topic.

Do you write for children (or YAs)? What kind of words do you use, or avoid using? Share some opinions or examples.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. Krysia permalink
    February 14, 2011 11:06 pm

    As a YA reader I love reading books that expand my vocabulary. Sometimes I do have to look something up (or text Lynda for the meaning) but I am not put off by big words. The thing I don’t like is when people start using large words when a diminutive one would suffice. It tends to sound forced, like the author is trying to impress us lowly adolescents with words that have an impressive number of syllables. I think that if you know the word (that is you are not using a thesaurus) and it fits well in the sentence you should use it.

  2. February 15, 2011 7:32 pm

    I write young adult science fiction, and I agree with what Leslie said. Don’t write down to kids–either in terms of vocabulary or ideas. They’ll hate it if you do. (I’m talking mostly about YA/MG, tho. For early readers, you do have to worry vocabulary more.)

  3. Lynda Williams permalink
    February 15, 2011 9:49 pm

    Pretension is never popular. Nor is writing “down” to YAs. Thanks for your input Krysia and Angie.

  4. February 18, 2011 5:52 pm

    I write for both children and young adults. Comments about not writing down to your readers apply whether you’re writing for 17-year-olds or 8-year-olds. Readers won’t stand for that, no matter what age they are. But it is perfectly possible to talk down to a reader while using big words. So, IMO, the matter of vocabulary is somewhat separate from the matter of writing down to. There are, in fact, guidelines for age-related vocabulary. “No more than 14 words per sentence” for middle-graders, for example. But a far better guide is experience. Read some well-known books for the age group you’re interested in. Spend some time with kids in that age group. Listen to them. Find out what they’re reading and why they like it. You’re aiming for that sweet spot where your reader is familiar with most of the words you use, the grammatical constructions can be understood without repeated readings, and trips to the dictionary are occasional rather than frequent.

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