RAWing with Woodson, Stine, and other great minds

(photo is RL Stine and me at YALSA Lit Symposium in San Antonio TX in November 2015)

When you write, do you think about the potential book’s appeal to non-readers?

R.L. Stine: Almost all of my books are designed for reluctant readers. When I wrote and edited educational magazines, I learned how to write for different reading levels. I try to keep my scary books at a 4th-grade reading and vocabulary level. In addition–short books, fast-paced, lots of surprises and twists, cliff-hanger chapter endings to force them to go on to the next chapter, and plot-driven books with little description to slow down the action.

Jacqueline Woodson: In the process of writing, all I’m thinking about is the story. I’m not aware of anything else around me. It’s like a spell sort of, where I’m just trying to get into the heads of my characters and understand what their story is trying to say. I write the way I speak and think most of the time and I write remembering who I was as a child and what mattered to me. I don’t have a huge vocabulary so my characters don’t. Also, the people I grew up loving were not trying to read books with huge words in them. John Gardner talks about ‘the dream of fiction’ how being inside a novel is like being inside a dream. I don’t want to break that dream. Big words or anything that feels ‘untrue’ can break it.

Gail Giles: I’m kind of Hemingway style in that I don’t like long convoluted sentences myself, so I don’t tend to use them. But I don’t pull back from vocabulary because I think a potential non-reader will be reading the book. That’s not being honest with my reader. He or she can get the meaning from the sentence usage, look it up, ask, or just skip it, but just because he or she is a non reader doesn’t mean he or she is a non listener. I don’t ever take a “discriminating reader’s” intelligence for granted.

Brent Hartinger: I believe that good writing is clear writing. There should never be a moment where the reader has to stop and say, “Okay, what just happened?” or re-read the paragraph again. I am one of those who thinks that clear, straight-forward sentences enables a writer to more effectively deal with complicated storylines and subjects. The one area where I do try to push the envelope a little is in terms of vocabulary, especially when I’m writing for middle grade readers. If a simpler word is the better choice, I’ll go with the simpler word.

Catherine Atkins: Accessibility is one of the elements I keep in mind as I write. In my day job I am a teacher of reluctant and non-readers and I want to be able to reach them. Many of my students are potential readers, super-excited if they can find a book that moves them that they also understand. As a writer, if I have a choice between a “quarter” word (multi-syllabic and/or obscure) or a “nickel” word (short, snappy, and clear), I’ll take the nickel word every time.

Neal Shusterman: Absolutely not. I write a book that appeals to my own sensibilities. My goal is to be so excited about what I’m writing that the excitement translates right into the page. If I’m getting bored while I’m writing, then I know I’m doing something wrong. In terms of sentence structure, it’s all about rhythm. Good prose should flow like poetry. Some lines are short. Terse. Designed for impact. While others are, for the sake of variety, expansive and full of information, be it description, or introspection — that is to say, a character’s inner thoughts. I also just illustrated what I like to do with vocabulary. I like to offer readers challenging words, (like terse, expansive, and introspection) but use them in context in such a way that the meaning becomes obvious. Sometimes for emphasis — you know, to make the point more strongly — I’ll put the definition right into the sentence, in a conversational way. This way kids learn dozens of new words without even realizing they’re learning new words.

Marilyn Reynolds: I do, sometime before the final draft, go over the manuscript in search of sentences and words that can be simplified without losing meaning. I watch for repetitions. I attempt to edit in a way that makes every word count. My best strategy to assure a book’s appeal to non-readers is to take the manuscript into a classroom full of teens who hate to read. They’re usually willing to listen to me read to them, because it means they don’t have to “work.” Their teachers don’t mind a change of routine, either. The beauty of working with “at-risk” kids is that most of them have not been exposed to Emily Post, and they don’t mind saying if an author’s own precious work is boring, or stupid, or sucks. Although their literary criticism skills may not be highly developed, I definitely learn from them what is and what is not working and what chapters need the most attention when I get to the business of rewriting.

Joyce Sweeney: I never dumb anything down. I don’t believe the key to writing for reluctant readers is to write in simple sentences or use simple words. I think good writing is good writing and all writers have a duty to write the best prose they know how. I believe the whole key to reaching reluctant readers is a good story, and frankly, if you’re busy telling a good story, you don’t use a lot of literary gimmicks, flourishes, digressions and other devices. To me, the best writers are often the clearest and simplest storytellers. If you’re getting fancy, you’re just showing off or covering up a lack of skill. I do think teen readers sense that. But never, never do I try to simplify language or ideas because I think kids can’t “get it.” Kids can “get” most anything.

David Lubar: I was always under the impression that I used long sentences and sophisticated vocabulary. But I kept seeing references to my work as being easy to read or “deceptively simple.” Out of curiosity, I ran a couple of my novels through Word’s reading-level analyzer and discovered I’m writing at a 4th grade level. Dang. I done though I was much more high falutin’ than that. I never shy away from using the right word, even if it might not be in the vocabulary of my reader, as long as there’s a reasonable chance he can figure out the meaning through context. I also don’t worry about sentence structure. But I tend to use a lot of short sentences. And fragments. I’ll revise a sentence if it is hard to follow or unclear. I don’t see any merit in obscurity. If you have to read a sentence three times to figure out what it means, the writer has failed, not the reader.



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