Wednesday, March 30, 2011

L is for Language

When it comes to the language you use when writing for middle graders, simple is usually better. But that doesn’t mean you need to “dumb down” your writing for kids. I find that using language at a level you would normally use when speaking is effective when writing for middle graders, whether you are writing narrative or dialogue. Here are a few considerations for making decisions about using language:

Vocabulary. Because middle graders are curious, it doesn’t hurt to sprinkle in some interesting vocabulary. New words can be fascinating. Just be sure not to overwhelm your readers. You want to write a good, readable story, not one that will make your readers drop the book because it’s too much like decoding a weird alien language (though see point #4).

Swearing. While most 9- to 12-year-old readers will have heard (and possibly used) “bad words”, parents still figure strongly in their lives and may have opinions about what they are able to handle emotionally. Also, many middle grade books are sold through school book clubs, signed out at school libraries and/or studied in class. A general rule of thumb is to avoid or use only mild swearing when writing for middle graders. Otherwise, you may be limiting your marketability. If you do decide to include swearing in your story, use it sparingly. One alternative is to make up your own “nonsense” swear word or phrase as a replacement for a contentious word.

Slang. Although slang can add realism to your writing and dialogue, it can be tricky to pull it off so that it sounds like a real kid, rather than an adult trying to sound like a kid. The best way to find out what kids are saying is, well, go listen to some kids talking. Keep in mind that what’s cool/hip/hot/rad this year may not be by the time your story gets published.

Foreign languages. I love the authenticity that develops from using cultural words and expressions in stories (e.g. Linda Sue Park’s novels). It adds a layer of depth to the story and it’s interesting to learn how you say things in a different language. This holds true for the made up words in fantasy or other world stories. Again, the key to doing this effectively is to not overwhelm the reader (three or four new expressions per chapter at most).

Do you have any pet peeves (or great tips) for using language effectively?


Check out these thoughts from a school librarian on using coarse language in middle grade fiction at Susan Kaye Quinn’s Ink Spells.

Another opinion on swearing in children’s fiction at Throwing Up Words.

Over at Let the Words Flow, a few agents and writers weigh in on swearing in YA.

Candy Gourlay has posted some great tips for using slang effectively at Notes from the Slushpile.

Beth Revis talks about using evolved language in futuristic writing at The League of Extraordinary Writers.

Elizabeth Craig asks some questions to help you decide whether or not to use profanity.

Over at From the Mixed Up Files, Rosanne Parry talks about whether or not to use profanity in middle grade fiction.

*If you know of any other links on using language in middle grade writing, let me know and I'll add them to the list.


  1. Great links. I have to say a pet peeve of mine is made up swear words esp. ones set in the future. I just can't get past the madeupness of it. :)

  2. Excellent take on the subject, Andrea. I try to peg my vocabulary to my main character before I start writing. Even though they're the same age, some characters are going to be more erudite than others. To me, it's not "Would my middle grade reader understand this word?" as much as "Would my main character ever think this word?"

    The curse thing is tough. In my last middle grade, I pegged the main characters "swear words" to her interests: she thinks Rats and Auggh like Charlie Brown would. But I'm enjoying writing a YA now and throwing around fancy verbs and swear words!

  3. Great post! I've been struggling with this. I have a bit of mild language: hell, as in WTH (coming from an adult, it absolutely fits his personality), but part of me has wondered if I should take it out. And yet, it feels necessary. Hmmm... But lots of great food for thought!

  4. Laura, I suppose made up words might work better in one story than they do in another. It may depend on the tone of the story.

    Kate, you've made a good point about how characters think. I like your tip about relating "swear words" to character interests.

    Alison, I always think that if it feels necessary, it should stay in. If the story is really good, I can't imagine an agent or editor turning it down because it has a bit of language (especially if it's mild). They might suggest you take it out at some point if they don't think it's needed.

  5. I usually stay away from profanity in MG and use the slang words very sparingly, for the reason you mentioned. Also, because at this age they are still taking Reading as a class in school,they are used to not seeing any of that most of the time. YA is different and kids at that age experiment with words in public and with friends some wouldn't use at home and it would be more realistic for them.

  6. When I was writing my Upper MG novel I didn't 'dumb down' the vocabulary at all. I learned so many new words from books as a child and found it fascinating. No, that's not entirely true - I changed one word: 'Stygian' -hey, I didn't need it anyway.

    As for swearing, there are a few 'damn' and 'damned's in there, but I often sidestep it by saying things like 'He kicked the door and cursed' which i think sounds fine. Also, it's historical British, so I can have words like 'blinking' and 'blooming' which fit and are inoffensive.

  7. PS Forgot to say, I gave you a blog award :)

  8. Catherine, you make a good point about other books kids might be reading and what they are used to seeing. I think sometimes MG readers do experiment with words, but in different ways (e.g. repeating word games, changing letters in words).

    Girl Friday, you're sweet! Some curse words seem more acceptable than others. But then, it all depends on your age. Sometimes my K students will say things like "So-and-so said the S-word" and they mean "stupid."


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