Writing for Different Age Groups Like a Total Pro
As you may recall from your own experience living a human life, however long it’s been, a lot changes between the ages of three and sixteen or twenty-two or fifty-seven.
Our interests evolve. The themes that speak to us change. In one phase of life, we gravitate towards things that make us laugh. In another, we may crave honest depictions of struggle and injustice.
This is why writing for different age groups isn’t just a matter of using the words that best fit your audience’s reading level. You also need to understand who your readers are—how they think, what they value, how to hold their attention, and how to write stories that align with their emotional development.
It’s a big job no matter how old your readers are. My goal in this article is to offer an overview that makes the process a little less daunting, whether you dream of writing picture books or literary fiction. We’ll talk about:
- How age groups are divided and defined in the literary world
- Tips to help you write for each group
- How to adapt your writing style for different audiences
- Common pitfalls to avoid when creating stories for different age groups
Let’s start by looking at how we categorize books according to the age of the audience.
Understanding Different Age Groups
What’s the difference between picture books and early reader books? Are young adult novels considered children’s books? Do we separate adult fiction into age groups, too?
If you’re confused about any of this, you’re definitely not alone. The dividing lines between literary age groups can look a bit blurry at times, so let’s break this down. We’ll look at the age ranges and defining features of each category.
What do you picture when you hear the term “children’s book”? A board book? Picture book? The very first chapter book you read on your own?
For that matter, what image does the word “child” bring to mind? A toddler? Nine-year-old? The Bumble match who ghosted you?
It’s hard to define children’s literature in one tidy, little sentence because kids—and the books they love—are in a constant state of evolution. That’s why the children’s book category contains multiple subcategories. In a bit, we’ll explore these subcategories, including picture books, early reader books, and chapter books.
For now, know when people talk about children’s books, they’re typically talking about literature for readers in the 0-9 age range. Middle grade (MG) and young adult (YA) are sometimes included under the heading of kid lit, too, but we’re going to keep them separate for the purposes of this article.
- The Rabbit Listened by Cori Doerrfeld (picture book)
- Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak (picture book)
- The Elephant and Piggie series by Mo Willems (early reader books)
- The Dog Man series by Dave Pilkey (early reader books)
- The Alvin Ho series by Lenore Look (chapter books)
- The Junie B. Jones series by Barbara Park (chapter books)
Middle grade readers are typically ages 9-12. The books in this category resemble novels but with a shorter word count and simpler storylines. They’re also divided into literary genres.
- The Giver by Lois Lowry
- Ghost by Jason Reynolds
- The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich
You most likely know (or are) a grown-up who loves YA fiction. Regardless, when we talk about young adult readers, we’re talking about the intended audience of this category. If you write YA, your audience is in the 12-18 age range. Teenagers, basically.
YA books tend to be a bit shorter than novels written for adult readers, but not by much. They also resemble adult novels more closely than middle grade books in terms of story complexity and character development. But more on that later.
- The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
- The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
- Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera
Once readers are old enough to be in college, we stop putting their books into age-specific categories. Everyone over the age of eighteen is considered an adult reader.
If you write for this group, you want to focus less on age-appropriate themes and characters and more on the expectations of your genre.
- American Gods by Neil Gaiman
- Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
- The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Now that we’ve got the rules of categorization down, let’s talk about the needs of each group’s readers.
Writing for Children
As I mentioned before, there are multiple subcategories under the heading of children’s books. Each one represents a different phase of the child’s development, both as a reader and as a human being.
However, these subcategories have a few things in common. For one thing, all kids’ books should ultimately have a positive outlook. They can acknowledge challenging topics, but they should have happy endings and embrace the bright side of difficult situations.
Most children’s books have a message, but it’s not a requirement. Sometimes they’re just fun or silly.
Finally, the main character—usually a child, animal, or some other non-adulty being—must have a goal, confront a conflict, and save the day themselves. Grown-up characters can provide guidance or safety, but like any other protagonist, the hero(ine) of a children’s book should be active decision-makers.
Age range: 0-4
Word count: 300-800 (around 32 pages)
Unsurprisingly, a picture book has an illustration on every page (with the one brilliant exception of The Book With No Pictures). But that doesn’t mean the story doesn’t matter.
In fact, the stories told through picture books often introduce kids to important concepts ranging from personal responsibility to cultural pride. These books are also a child’s first introduction to the literary world, so if you can rope ‘em in with a captivating protagonist and engaging plot, you can help inspire a lifelong love of books. Big stuff.
The trick is to keep the conflict simple and the story active. Dialogue is good. Keep the scene description to a minimum. And if you want to convey a message, drill that message down to its most essential version and communicate it through the tale you tell. If it sounds teachy and preachy, they’ll spit it out like a Brussels sprout.
Also remember that parents and teachers will be reading your picture book out loud, so it’s a good idea to do the same in your revision process. Make sure your words flow and are a delight to the ears.
Early Reader Books
Age range: 5-7
Word count: 1,000-5,000
If you write an early reader book, your primary goal is to create a book that keeps kids entertained while also allowing them to practice their reading skills. This means sticking with words that allow young readers to stretch their skills without being so difficult it’s discouraging.
In other words, embrace “oval” and avoid “onomatopoeia.” (The actual word, I mean. You can use all the onomatopoeia you want in your early reader books.)
As for story and characters, these books should be ultra simple. But that doesn’t mean they have to be boring. I grew up with cats sitting on mats and other snoozefests, but kids these days are cutting their literary teeth on stories about a ragey pigeon looking to take a joyride.
So let the limits of the early reader category challenge your imagination rather than squash it.
Oh, and early reader books also have illustrations on every page.
Age range: 6-9
Word count: Up to 10,000
Chapter books represent an exciting transition change for young readers. These stories are still part of the reading education mandated by teachers and parents, but kids also pick up these books for their own entertainment.
Once again, you want to keep the plot structure simple, but you can add more detail than you would with picture books and early reader books. Your story should follow one main character (no subplots) who has a crystal clear goal and conflict.
Get cozy with action and dialogue. Don’t bother with detailed scene descriptions or introspective character moments. Your readers aren’t into that stuff yet.
Also remember that these kids are still learning to read. Stick with mostly simple sentences and accessible vocabulary. As for the picture situation, chapter books tend to have illustrations, but they’re not on every page.
For more tips on writing a children’s book, check out this article.
Writing for Middle Grade Readers
Age range: 9-12
Word count: 30,000-50,000 (more for fantasy)
Now you’re really writing for solo readers. If you play your writerly cards right, this is the phase when your stories can have young folks reading by flashlight way past their bedtime.
And how do you pull that off?
For this age group, you still want to maintain a fairly simple plot line, but you can dig a little deeper on characters and theme. Your protagonist should be easy to like but also have clear, relatable flaws. You can give a little more page time to fun and interesting side characters.
Middle grade fiction also allows you to explore bigger character arcs. Your main character can make big mistakes, face seemingly impossible hurdles, and decide to do the right thing even when it’s difficult and terrifying.
As an MG author, it’s important to keep in mind that your audience’s world is still pretty small. Their biggest concerns relate to family, school, and maybe their neighborhood. They’re beginning to think about how they fit into these spaces—what it means to be a good friend and caring person.
That doesn’t mean you can’t explore challenging themes. MG fiction can provide a safe introduction to difficult topics like grief, divorce, and even social injustice. The trick is to keep the story contained to the protagonist’s safe little universe and supply a happy ending.
Finally, ages 9-12 are when kids start gravitating towards their preferred genres, so you’ll also want to pick one and get familiar with the norms of your literary category. Common genres for middle grade include mystery, adventure, science-fiction, fantasy, and realistic fiction.
For more tips on writing MG fiction, check out:
Writing for Young Adults
Age range: 12-18
Word count: 50,000-75,000 (more for fantasy)
YA fiction closely resembles adult fiction in terms of complexity. These books feature compelling character arcs, subplots, and more grown-up themes than you’d find in MG fiction.
So what sets this age group apart from the fully grown folk?
For one thing, while a YA novel doesn’t have to have a happy ending, it should have a hopeful one. If you’ve ever read any of the classic novels assigned to you in school, you know that’s not a requirement for adult fiction.
And while YA can include mature elements like sexuality, violence, and drugs, authors tend to avoid getting too graphic for this particular age group.
Then there are the stories themselves. Young adult novels reflect the fears, dreams, and values of the teenagers who read them.
If you’re an aspiring YA author, you’re writing for an audience whose awareness of the world beyond themselves is widening. They’re asking big questions about justice, identity, connection, independence, and purpose. Look at the major conversations we have as a society—racism, mental health, homophobia—and you’ll see those themes explored extensively in YA novels.
The catch is that you have to write about these big things from the perspective of a young person grappling with them for the first time.
And don’t forget to study the way the most successful YA authors write your genre. Common genres for this age group include science-fiction, fantasy, romance, and realistic fiction.
For more tips on writing YA, check out:
Writing for Adults
Now you’re in the world of adult fiction, where you’re free to lay out complex storylines, write bloody fight scenes, and explore controversial themes…
…if your genre says it’s okay. Because it’s all about genre now.
As I mentioned before, we mostly stop specifying reader age ranges at this point. There is one relatively new exception, and that is the category of new adult fiction.
New adult (NA) readers fall in the 19-30 age range, as do the protagonists of these books. The stories themselves center on those early years of adulthood, tackling issues like romance, career, and establishing an identity in the wider world.
While the NA label is starting to appear more frequently, the value of using it at all is still hotly debated, as it narrows the marketing to a smaller audience, leaving out older adults who are just as likely to read and enjoy those stories.
Examples from this category include Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas, and Black Buck by Mateo Askaripour.
Aside from the NA consideration, genre—not age—should guide your storytelling if you plan to write for the grown-ups. If you could use a little more help in that department, I recommend checking out these halls of DabbleU:
Adapting Your Writing Style
Now for the big question:
How do you adapt your current writing style to fit the age group you’re writing for? Or if you’ve already built an audience in one age group, how do you alter your style to suit another?
The first and most important step is to read several successful books that target your chosen age group. Look for patterns in tone, style, voice, and content.
Also use these books alongside your own research to get into the minds of your future readers. How do they perceive the world? What charms, terrifies, thrills, or entices them?
Then, of course, there are the practical considerations. What’s their reading level? How long is their attention span?
For a fun exercise, pull sentences from books outside your category and rewrite them to suit your audience.
It might also help to see how other authors have adapted their style for different age ranges… authors like:
- Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret (middle grade)
- Forever (young adult)
- Summer Sisters (adult)
- Crazy Hair (picture book)
- Coraline (middle grade)
- Good Omens (adult)
- The Day You Begin (picture book)
- Brown Girl Dreaming (middle grade)
- Red at the Bone (adult)
Common Pitfalls to Avoid
Before you scamper off to put these ideas to work in your next literary masterpiece, I want to give you heads-up about some of the pitfalls that come with writing for a specific age group. I’m talking about errors like:
Talking down to young readers - In order to write well for any age group, you must find your way into the mindset of the reader. See their dreams, fears, and challenges through their eyes and write from that perspective rather than telling the story from the view of a grown-up who knows better.
Or to put it another way, take your readers seriously and don’t insult their intelligence.
Talking over their heads - Okay, so it’s a delicate balance when it comes to writing for kids. You don’t want to underestimate your audience, but you also want to avoid using ten-dollar words or complex concepts young readers aren’t ready for.
Preaching - If you have a message, build it into the narrative. No one of any age picks up a fiction book hoping to get a stranger’s input on how they should live their lives.
Assuming writing for young readers will be quick and easy - All writing is difficult and time consuming. You might as well write for the age group that interests you most.
Age is Just the Beginning
It’s important to write a book that aligns with your readers’ intellectual and emotional development. But age is far from the only consideration that goes into writing a book that sells.
It’s a lot. But Dabble’s got your back. Not only can you find an absurd amount of free resources in DabbleU, you can also have great tips and writing prompts delivered to your inbox weekly. All you have to do is sign up here for the totally free, not-at-all spammy Dabble newsletter.
Those weekly drips of wisdom add up to an entire flood of inspiration. So stick with us and we’ll help you craft the stories that delight your readers, however old or young they may be.
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