Wednesday, June 15, 2011

W is for Words: Choosing Right for Writing Middle Grade

Every writer knows how important it is to get the words right. The words you choose reflect the voice of your character and allow your reader to slip seamlessly into your story. Awkward wording, too many clich├ęs, or word choices that don’t fit with the viewpoint character’s style can pull the reader away from the story.

Consistency. Choosing words to create a consistent tone or style is important. You can create a jarring effect by having adult characters use kid language, or by having kids use the wrong type of slang for the time period. Or even worse, to use slang inappropriately, showing that you are adult trying to sound like a kid.
Descriptions. The words you choose for making comparisons or creating imagery also need to resonate with your readers. That means it’s important to try to think the way kids think and notice what they notice.
These examples from the novel I’m reading now, Flutter by Erin E. Moulton, show how the author has chosen kid-friendly words: “whistley breath”, “frosting that I can lick off the tips of my fingers”, and “spilling a gob of seeds across the kitchen table”.
Vocabulary level. One worry for children’s writers is that the vocabulary or word level is right for different grade levels. I always think that for middle grade, if I’m using mostly words I’d use in ordinary conversation, then they will sound natural and be accessible to my readers.

But some writers are skilled at using a richer vocabulary, as in Lisa Yee’s Millicent Min, Girl Genius. The words you choose need to fit with your viewpoint character. The phrase “I appreciate the intellectual strategies some games involve” wouldn’t work in all middle grade novels, but it’s completely in character for Millicent.

How do you make sure your word choices are right for your novel?

A few fun sites to help you find the right word:
Accents – Here’s some help for getting accents right.

Metaphor – Ideas for common metaphors by category.

Onomaotpoeia or words that make noise
More words that make noise

Rhymes – This unique dictionary allows you to type in any word and it will generate a rhyme.

Slang - A unique dictionary to help make sure you've gotten the slang right.

TextMessage Lingo

Thesaurus Collections - A great online thesaurus collection for writers that includes ideas for describing emotions, settings, colours, textures and shapes, symbolism, weather and character traits from The Bookshelf Muse  

Urban Dictionary

YA author Vahini Naidoo talks about how choosing the right words helps you convey the voice and mood of the viewpoint character.

At Project Mayhem, Michael Winchell discusses vocabulary in middle grade novels.
Kid-lit agent Mary Kole discusses word choice and how it affects voice and interiority on her blog, and especially interesting are her workshop examples on snippets of reader submissions. Try Workshop #6 for some insights on word choice.


  1. That's a tough question. I go for the words that reflect the mood and my character, even if I don't always get them right!

  2. I think middle grade is the toughest age group to get the right words. I tend to let the vocabularly flow in my frist drafts and then worry about age appropriateness during revision.

    If you could have eavesdropped on a recent revision session, you might have heard me ask my husband about what word or phrase an 11-year-old boy use for the word "epiphany." I think I came up with something like a "lightning-bolt moment."

  3. This through-the-alphabet-for-middle-grade is so wonderful. I'll return to these posts again and again. Thank you. The links are marvelous.

    Word choice is tough. I just write my first draft and concern myself with word choice in revision (easy cop-out as my WIP is my second and no one will ever see my first). But I have middle grade kids who, of course, have middle grade friends. So I hear lots of middle grade speak.

  4. Barbara, thanks for your positive feedback! Even when I get through the alphabet (still thinking about XYZ - ha!), I'm going to continue to add posts to address other topics, with relevant links, to add to the resource.

    Katie, I think you're right about middle grade being tough. I love "lightning-bolt moment"!

    Laura, all we can do is keep trying and working to improve!

  5. My effort to write a middle grade was a bit of a miss. Not as easy as you'd like to think. It's not a total write-off, but I need to give it a lot more attention, more than I'm willing to at the moment. Maybe someday.

    Thanks for the links!

  6. Another great set of links for me to explore. Thanks Andrea. :)

  7. Thanks so much for the mention, Andrea!

    I think the words are so important, because within MG, there is a huge range of audience, I think. You see MGs that are fun and fluffy, and you see ones that are a bit grittier and adventurous. Some are simpler and linear, others are not. I write both MG and YA, and I always find MG harder to get just right, hitting the right tone for the right 'audience with in MG'. What works for one type of reader will not appeal to another, so it's all about understanding who the ideal reader is and how to reach them through the words you choose. :)

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

  8. Love this. Love the links. Creating MG voice and tone is tricky.

  9. Elle, it might be that the way you write and what you want write about isn't suited to MG. For me, it helps that I read a lot of MG books.

    I think you're right, Angela. Not to mention getting it to sound right for the age level, e.g. sometimes my writing comes out sounding too old or too young.


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