Friday, October 31, 2014

Audience, Revising, and Poetry Friday!

Today, I’m continuing our Teaching Authors series on whether to try to appeal to reluctant readers, or any particular type of reader, when we write. So far, we seem to agree that we should write what moves us and hope that it moves others, too. I’m going off on a few tangents to add some related thoughts.

I started writing for kids when our kids were little. I found inspiration while hanging out with kids on playgrounds, in school, and at soccer games. I kept our kids in mind as I wrote. When they grew out of picture book age, I lost them as audience but kept their younger selves in mind, along with their friends, my own younger self, and the children my sisters used to be. Maybe that’s why one editor kindly described my voice as “classic.” With school visits dwindling, perhaps I should spend more time at the playground.

When I worked as a managing editor for an educational publisher, a reading specialist assigned reading levels to all our books. We also assigned each one an interest level, which was intended to attract reluctant readers to subjects that might appeal to them even if did not correlate with the reading level. This category included many high-interest topics for boys: amazing sports feats, weird facts, adventure stories. How well did it work? I can’t say. I thought of it as just one more marketing tool.

My writing group is remarkable in many ways, but what applies to this topic is their ability to pick out words, phrases, and concepts that seem too adult for a poem or picture book manuscript. Yesterday, I sifted through my filing cabinet and recycled a paper grocery bag full of old drafts. I was struck by the number of gently worded rejection letters, several of which referenced this problem, especially in my poetry collections. Although we should not focus too much on audience when we write, we should pay attention when we revise. Maybe some of those old poems are worth taking another crack at with a young audience specifically in mind.

I’m revising a nonfiction manuscript that includes a lot of scientific information. I’m putting more complex details in sidebars. A few nights ago, out of curiosity, I separated the main text from the sidebars and checked the reading levels separately. (To do this in Microsoft Word, select the text you want to check. Then on the Review tab, click Spelling and Grammar.) I went through the main text and checked it sentence by sentence so I could revise the most difficult ones. I’m not saying that reading level is necessarily an indicator of text complexity, but it does contribute. I use this feature a lot when I write for educational publishers who specify a reading level. When a sentence is too high, I substitute simpler words, divide it into two sentences, or even cut it.

Here’s an example:
We piled into the car, rode to the library, and picked out our favorite books to read and share.

The revised version:
We piled into the car. Mom drove us to the library. Each of us checked out a stack of books. We read our own, and then we traded.

Notice that I added words and also varied the sentence structure.

It’s Poetry Friday! Here’s a poem I found yesterday when I cleaned out my files.

My Singular Garden 
My garden is a skinny one
with just the right amount of sun.
I planted one delphinium,
one violet, one trillium,
one rosebush,
one geranium,
one tulip,
one chrysanthemum.
I wish I could continuum,
but I have reached the maximum.

The Poetry Friday Roundup is at Teacher Dance. Enjoy!

Today is the last day for our 2015 Children's Writers and Illustrator's Market Book Giveaway! Enter here.

Finally, don’t forget to V O T E !

JoAnn Early Macken


Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for the reading level example. I'd knew about the feature in Word, but was amazed at how the reading level changed with your revisions.
Love your garden poem!

Carmela Martino said...

Great points, JA. And thanks for sharing your poem. I especially like the last two lines:
>>I wish I could continuum,
but I have reached the maximum.<<

Linda B said...

I love your poem, JoAnn, so clever in the rhyming. In all this time working with word, I've never noticed that one can find the reading level, etc. with that tool, only used word count and grammar check. Thank you for that and the advice is worth listening to, I suspect. Hope your Halloween is a good time of cute little ones in costumes!

Bridget Magee said...

Love your revision exercise - important to keep in mind. Also, love the garden poem. =)

Bobbi Miller said...

What a grand exercise for revision! Thank you, and thank you for the wonderful poem, too!

Sue Heavenrich said...

Good points, but we need to remember that the readability numbers sometimes don't reflect what kids will read. Three-syllable words kick the reading level up, but show me any second-grader who can't read the word "dinosaur" or "tyrannosaurus" (that's 5 syllables - an entire line of haiku). So when I use this tool I temper it with my judgement. On the other hand, it is a very good way to check whether our long, phrase-ridden sentences are too complex for young readers. So my thoughts: Complex words - yes. Lengthy convoluted sentences - no.

JoAnn Early Macken said...

Thanks to all for your comments! I'm sorry for the belated response--I've been helping with last-minute canvassing before tomorrow's election.

I'm glad the reading level info was helpful. To make sure it shows up when you check spelling, follow these instructions (adapted from Word Help):

1. Click the Microsoft Office Button, and then click "Word Options" (at the bottom of the window).
2. Click "Proofing" (on the left).
3. Make sure "Check grammar with spelling" is selected.
4. Under "When correcting grammar in Word," select the "Show readability statistics" check box.

And yes, Sue, dinosaur names are perfect examples of long words that even little kids know.

Have a great week, everyone!