Themes for 2018 Ask are here! This year we're wondering about noodles, feathers, slime, and how to tell fake news from real news. This post, for example—has it been checked with outside sources? Look down in the right corner for the full list—and if you have a great idea for a story that isn't on the list, send it anyway! We're always looking for cool stories, and our sister magazines Spider and Cricket are too.
Good tips on science writing for kids! Check out the latest post from Elizabeth Preston, science writer and former editor of MUSE, at the Open Notebook:
I'm often asked if there's anything in particular I'm looking for—usually the answer is just "good stories." But I am looking for more narrative nonfiction, telling true stories like fiction—this approach has great appeal for younger readers, and I'd like to get more of it in Ask. It could be the unfolding of a moment in science history, or a Flatland-type math adventure, or a classmate of Newton telling what it was like to go to school with him, or an apprentice blacksmith taking us on a tour around a Viking blacksmith shop. So if you've got an idea for a neat narrative nonfiction piece, or want to give it a try, pitch it! I'd love to see new approaches to old (or new) subjects.
Those Big Words
Learning impressive new words is one of the joys of reading. At the same time, when you meet a bunch in a row that you don’t know, it can be discouraging. So don’t be afraid of of using technical words where they are the clearest way of naming something, or that give kids a badge into a new field that will make them feel clever. When you are talking about amphibians, say amphibians. But use them with care and purpose.
Some general guidelines for Ask:
When you introduce a new term, define it in place when you first use it. We don’t do “vocabulary words” like a textbook, so define it when you use it, in the natural flow of the text.
Like this: "they found many microbes, tiny living things so small you can only see them with a microscope."
Then use the word again several times throughout the article, so kids will get to know it. Microbes here, microbes there, multiplying microbes everywhere.
Generally, try to introduce not more than two or three big words per 1000 word article, if that.
And if you find yourself using a big word only once, consider finding an alternative. If you only use it once, is it really that important?
Under this same general heading, simplify titles and leave out institutions, degrees, funding agencies, etc. I know they always want their full names in articles, but really, kids don’t care and their eyes will glaze over. So, “She teaches robotics,” not “She is an Associate Professor of Machine Learning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology School Media Lab.”
Connecting with Your Audience
How do you know if your language will connect? If you’re hitting the right level? The best test is to read your piece out loud to some unseuspecting children. Out loud is always good, for so many reasons; out loud to kids is even better. Try to find some kids that aren’t your own, if possible—unless you have raised them to be brilliantly honest critics with no hidden agendas that might benefit from flattery. Don’t just ask them what they think (um, I dunno, it was good). Watch where they seem to lose interest or look puzzled, and ask them if they have questions. Sometimes this can turn up things that you think you have explained brilliantly, but they’ve managed to get entirely the wrong idea about from some chance phrasing.
How long can my sentences be?
You may have heard the old saw to use as many words per sentence as your readers are old. Eight word sentences for eight-year-olds! Next year, they can read nine words! This, of course, is silly. Good prose will always have varied sentences, even for eight year olds.
Vigorous sentences fit their purpose. Short sentences for impact. Longer sentences for process. Jointed sentences to join ideas. You know this perfectly well. Same for kids.
But newly independent readers are still learning the ropes.
The more important goal when writing for kids is not short sentences, but transparency. A transparent sentence is one in which the structure of the sentence follows (and supports) the unfolding of the idea (or action) being presented.
Transparent: When the birds get home, they take a bath and roost for the night. (Order of the sentence tracks order of the actions)
Not transparent: Having bathed, the newly returned birds roost for the night. (To unpack this, have to keep several clauses in mind and extrapolate order of events. Easy for you and me—not so easy for 8 year olds.)
Notice that the first sentence is longer than the second. But it is much easier to read. Length is no measure of ease of reading—aim for clarity, even if it gives you longer sentences.