Ursula K. LeGuin is famous for saying (among many, many other things) that writing for children is not just a case of using short words. While writing for kids often involves short words, that’s not the whole picture. Kids’ brains are developing. Their language skills are developing. Their comprehension of the world around them is developing. When you write for kids – and especially if you’re explaining a scientific concept to them – you need to meet them where they live. Four-year olds do not understand that the earth is a sphere (wouldn’t all the people fall off the bottom?). Six-year olds can’t work with models (no, that’s not the moon; it’s clearly a tennis ball). Thirteen-year-olds have not had differential calculus yet (so please find a different way of explaining Newton’s Laws of Motion to them). The best way to learn how to write for kids is to read books and articles written for kids. And maybe talk to a few kids. And seek advice from their teachers. Also, check out the links below about reading level, science concepts, and vocabulary.
If you want to write for kids, magazines are a good place to start. Evelyn Christensen’s website has a complete list of children’s magazines. Here’s another list from the Non-fiction Ninjas. If you are interested in submitting work to any of them, that information is usually near the bottom of the magazine’s main page, labeled “submissions,” “contact,” or something similar. Submittable.com is also a great resource. More and more magazines are using this interface for author submissions, including pitches and even full articles. Sign up for a free account, and you can track your own submissions. Check frequently to see when your favorite magazines put out a call for submissions.
Anatomy of a Pitch
A magazine pitch usually consists of a description of the scope of your article, proposed word count, a detailed outline, and a list of resources (including potential interview subjects). If it’s your first time querying a magazine, you will also be asked to submit a writing sample or two. If you’re unpublished, find something that shows you can string words together coherently. My first writing samples were a class exercise and the justification section of a grant I’d written. You can submit a college essay, a professional article, or even a blog post. Your cover letter or email should also include what a query letter would include: a brief description of the article and why it will be interesting to kids (the “hook”), your credentials, and why you’re interested in this particular magazine. If you are unknown to the editor, keep it professional. You may write for kids, but the editor is an adult.
Magazine editors don’t have a lot of spare time, what with having to get an entire 50-100 page issue out every 1-2 months. So make it easy on them, and follow their submission instructions carefully. Sticking to proper formatting, word limits, due dates, and manner of submission will help convince them that you are reliable (i.e., they will want to hire you again). Most of these magazines are probably in your local library, so go check them out to get an idea of their desired writing style.
How to Write Your Article
What concepts can you cover, and in what detail? There is no Common Core for science (yet), but there are the Next Generation Science Standards. These are developmentally appropriate science learning standards formulated by the states, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the National Science Teachers’ Association (NSTA), and the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). You can check them out at the NGSS website. Your state’s department of education will also have some good resources.
If you google Reading level, you’ll get a lot of commercial websites trying to sell you leveled readers or software that will assess the readability of your text. A good free site is the Renaissance ATOS text analyzer. It inputs your text and spits out a number. For example 4.5 is readable by most 4th graders. Teachers use these numbers to steer their students toward appropriate reading materials. Check out the related Wikipedia page for the Flesch-Kincaid system. (Yes, yes, I know. Wikipedia, blech. It’s a good article, okay? If you’re really upset by it, click on the references.)
Vocabulary can also be an issue. The Children’s Writer’s Word Book is an excellent resource here. They list words by grade level (K-6) and provide synonyms. If you absolutely can’t write an article without a particular word that is not at the appropriate reading level, or if you want to introduce kids to a cool science word, simply provide a glossary term.
If your query to a particular magazine isn’t picked up, fear not! There are many, many reasons that an editor will pass on your pitch. Maybe they had twelve pitches about the same topic, and they went with someone who was more seasoned, more expert, or who had written for them before. Maybe they decided to go in a different direction. Keep pitching! I realize everyone says this. But in this case, it’s actually true.