Captivate the Kids: How to Write Engaging Nonfiction Articles for Children
Sports are a favorite nonfiction article topic for kids
If you ask children whether fiction or nonfiction is more fun to read, most will say fiction. After all, a good story is hard to put down. So imagine kids flipping through a children’s magazine, their eyes grazing over the choices of reading material. Will they skip the articles and home in on the stories? You might be surprised. Nonfiction can be just as eye-catching and engaging to read as fiction.
In fact, popular children’s magazines are chockfull of nonfiction articles, and kids are devouring every word. It’s welcome news for parents since reading nonfiction helps kids gain valuable information, expands their curiosity, builds their vocabulary, and prepares them for handling life experiences. Children’s article writers benefit too because children’s magazine editors are always on the lookout for good nonfiction submissions—pieces that draw readers in and keep them hooked.
Think you’d like to try your hand at writing nonfiction articles for kids? Give this fun and marketable genre a go. These five steps will help you captivate the minds of young readers with true tales that’ll teach, inspire, and entertain like a favorite short story:
Choose a Topic That Appeals to Kids
Although there are plenty of things to write about, the question children’s article writers have to ask is, what do today’s kids like to read about? A good way to find that out is to ask kids themselves, or check with teachers, librarians, or other professionals who work with children. Children’s magazine editors may not know exactly what they’re looking for in a submission topic, but they’ll favor subjects that appeal to their readers and that capture the spirit of the magazine.
Naturally, it helps to know something about the topic you choose. Not only will you have expertise to share, but your passion for the subject will also shine through in your writing. Of course, everything is researchable, so not knowing about a subject shouldn’t stop you from writing about it. Some of today’s hottest topics for kids include animals, technology, the environment, fashion, history, social media, sports, music, school, video games, and world cultures. Many children’s magazines, including the Fun for Kidz magazines, Cricket magazines, and Highlights, conveniently list monthly themes or needed topics in their writer’s guidelines.
Once a general topic is selected, it’s time to narrow it down and give it a specific focus. Too broad a topic and you’ll lose the reader through boredom or information overload. Let’s say you want to write a piece on animals. Think of all the ways you could reduce this broad topic to something more concrete and manageable, like a certain type of animal, an animal behavior, or a physical characteristic of an animal. Even these ideas may not be specific enough, though. Topics often require several rounds of fine-tuning before they’re ready for the writing process. And it isn’t enough to just narrow down a topic; you’ll also have to freshen it up.
Consider the subtopic “dogs.” Many children’s magazines have published articles about dogs, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for another piece on this popular subject. The trick is to find a new angle, something that hasn’t yet been covered or done before—a new breed, a teen celebrity’s adorable pooch, or a recently-discovered canine fossil. I once caught an editor’s attention with an article about the then-latest dog sport craze, agility, and how to train a dog at home using common household props.
Another way to freshen up a piece is through writing style or voice. Not too long ago, I came across an issue of a children’s magazine that contained an article about therapy dogs. While this topic was nothing new, the therapy dog served as the narrator of the story, giving a unique perspective to the topic.
Borrow Tools from Fiction
When writing nonfiction articles for kids, it also helps to think like a fiction writer. Suppose you’re writing a short biography of a famous person. A factual summary of the person’s life probably wouldn’t engage kids, but a gripping narrative that contains plenty of action, rich characterization, and lively dialogue likely would. Nonfiction that has a storytelling quality to it makes for a much better read, especially for children.
Also like fiction, engaging nonfiction takes an enticing opening, a paragraph that provides a hook. In fact, an article that doesn’t hook the reader at the beginning, despite an overall good story, will likely end up in a pile with other unread material. Fortunately, there are many ways to hook readers: tell an interesting anecdote, ask an intriguing question, or blow kids away with an awesome fact or figure, to name a few.
Once readers are hooked, however, keeping them interested demands another important element. Lee Wyndham summarizes it best in her acclaimed book Writing for Children and Teenagers: “Nonfiction writing, whether for articles or books, must have punch, an aliveness.” This level of excitement in writing can be achieved through pace.
Like fiction, nonfiction articles for kids work best when the pace moves at a fast clip.
Many tools used in fiction can help speed up the pace, like action, tension and suspense, and vivid, coherent descriptions that show rather than tell. Long, drawn-out explanations that simply recount a set of facts, on the other hand, will fall flat with young readers.
Wow Children with Fascinating Details
While topics and tools are important, writing compelling nonfiction articles for children often boils down to details. Kids love them—obscure, amazing, relevant, unknown, and well-researched details, that is—so finding them is key.
Where can you look for those fascinating tidbits of information? Books, periodicals, and the internet are all useful resources, but some of the best information can be found in places that aren’t so obvious. Visit a historical library and dig through unpublished materials. Head to a museum to study the exhibits. Find an expert on your topic and ask for an interview. Watch a movie, take a trip, or do an experiment. Important and quirky details are often discovered by simply observing.
Although it’s helpful to gather as many details as possible, keep in mind that not everything will make it into your article. Some details won’t be appropriate for the targeted age group or relevant to the theme of the article. But don’t be too quick to discard those unused morsels of information. Even if they don’t fit in the body of the article, they might work well in a sidebar. Sidebars are not only a great place for interesting “extra” details that somehow relate to the article; they’re a potential selling point for editors.
One more thing worth mentioning about details: don’t make them up. Some harmless fictionalizing is acceptable in nonfiction writing, but conjuring up material that doesn’t exist or facts that don’t ring true won’t do. Bibliographies or source lists are usually required by editors and, trust me, fact-checking is done. Avoid using details that can’t be corroborated.
Structure Children’s Writing for Readability
Who likes to read long sentences and paragraphs with few breaks and no variety? Definitely not kids. They prefer material that’s visibly appealing and well organized, especially when it comes to nonfiction. How an article appears and flows can actually make all the difference to young readers, who may not even attempt to read a dull, tedious-looking piece of writing. An attractive, structured article is much more inviting.
To organize your writing, consider using an outline. Many writers, including myself, do. Outlines help me lay out an article’s beginning, middle, and end and keep me from rambling and getting off topic. But there are other tricks that come in handy when it comes to structuring a children’s article for readability. They include:
Vary the sentences in length and structure. Short sentences intermixed with long ones make the writing flow better and allow readers to pause and take a breath.
Break up lengthy articles with subheadings, bulleted lists, or one-sentence paragraphs. Big blocks of print are hard on the eyes and look uninviting.
Use dialogue if possible and set it off with proper punctuation and paragraphing.
Avoid clutter, like redundant words and too many commas and exclamation points (which should be minimally used, if at all).
Create sidebars or related activities, such as games, puzzles, recipes, or quizzes, to offer variety.
Submit graphics, illustrations, and other images with your article. Visuals add life and color to any piece of writing.
Strive to write an article that’s clean, coherent, and well organized. Articles that look fun and easy to read will have a better chance of getting noticed, purchased, and read.
End with Closure but Not Finality
Everyone likes endings that provide closure, but closure doesn’t always mean finality. In fact, an ending that leaves kids curious to know more or still thinking about the piece long after they’ve read the last sentence is one that does the job well. Steer clear of endings that consist of a basic summary.
That’s not to say that summarizing the point or purpose of a nonfiction article for kids isn’t an important part of a good ending. It is. But summaries alone are a letdown for children and can make an article easy to forget. Instead, offer the reader something extra at the close, like a thought-provoking statement, contact information, or further reading for those who wish to explore the topic in more detail.
One of the best ways to end an article for kids is to use humor. It worked for me on a submission to a popular e-zine for kids. We loved your piece, the editor told me, but you need to add something clever at the end before we’ll accept it. I did, and it sealed the deal. Whether you use a play on words or amusing final remarks, funny endings are a hit with children and editors.
And don’t be fooled into thinking article endings need to be a full paragraph long. In fact, short, snappy, one or two sentence endings often have a bigger impact than a paragraph or longer conclusions.
Ready to get started writing articles for kids? Before delving into this exciting genre, it’s a good idea to review back issues of children’s magazines for examples of topics that interest kids, writing styles that click with editors, and other details related to nonfiction article writing for children. Then follow the above steps, and learn how to engage young readers and keep them wanting more, even after the final paragraph is read.
For a directory of children’s magazines that seek submissions, check out Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market, which is updated yearly and available as an ebook or in bookstores and public libraries.
For general information on writing your best, including your best a children’s article, please check out my ebook No Average Writer: How to Stand Out in the Writing Crowd and Write Your Best.
Photo Credit: Mark Thomas, Pixabay