Copywriting vs writing for kids

You'd be surprised how similar they are


Updated July 2016 to comply with recent Google changes.

Are you a two-hat writer?

On the one hand an erm … efficient, grounded, moneymaking copywriter? And on the other a self-indulgent, neurotic, impoverished purveyor of fiction? Join the large, mildly schizophrenic and usually frustrated club.

As a children’s author and copywriter, I won’t linger on this well-trodden track. Let’s just say that no sooner does a gloriously clear day of fiction writing loom, than an un-turndownable copywriting job comes along to gobble it up.

And as for those other hours traditionally given over to writing fiction, bed is just too cosy to get out of at 4am on winter mornings! And forget tapping far into the night. Don’t know about you, but my brain simply ceases to function at 6 pm – glass of pinot or not.

(You may not agree, but I reckon if you’re a night owl you’re a member of a blessed tribe.)

Weekends? They always seem to involve meeting copywriting deadlines – or (hopefully) crashing.

Anyway, back to the topic. Copywriting vs. kids’ authoring. Writing to two different audiences – the similarities and differences. So here goes:

Obvious similarity #1

Brevity. In both fields of writing, your every word must count. Be it press ad, 1,000-word picture book, even a 100,000-word novel. Waffle and extra padding is death to good communication.

Obvious similarity #2

Empathy. Whether your audience consists of hard-nosed buyers of plumbing supplies, blissed-out sniffers of natural scents, world-weary teenagers or wriggly three year olds, it’s the same. If you want your reader to engage with you, you have to plant yourself firmly in his or her shoes. And from a copywriter’s standpoint, what makes Pete the Plumber or Arielle the Aromatherapist think/speak/part with their precious bucks?

Difference #1

Bigger mental stretch. If you’re writing for kids, you really need to put yourself right back into the age group you’re writing for. (Which gets harder every year ( ) You have to remember what it feels like to be someone who can’t reach the top of the kitchen bench, let alone see over it. What the world looks like to an adventurous eleven year old, before adolescence tightens its iron grip. Or to a thirteen year old who’s lost her mental bearings.

That’s why many actors become writers. No matter whether you’re writing a story from the first, third or even second person point of view, you still have to try and become each and every one of your characters.

And I reckon that if you as a fiction writer attempt to write for anyone but your target reader, you’re sunk. The moment you start trying to please parents, school librarians, Children’s Book Council awards judges and other worthy gatekeepers, you’re on the road to literary ruin.

In the end I guess it boils down to simply writing what YOU want to write.

That’s because good fiction comes out of finding the reality of an individual situation, character or place. Rather than trotting out predetermined half-truths and clichés, you do your best to discover how something actually is. And that, of course, is the hardest part. It’s also about letting characters do and say what they would do and say, instead of controlling them.

And once you stop forcing your characters to follow a pre-ordained plot, magic usually happens. Minor characters can become major ones. Your own subconscious preoccupations start outing themselves, weaving themselves into the story as themes. The novel may even change direction completely!

Even well conceived and written thrillers, I’m sure, have twists and turns their authors never originally envisaged. Stephen King, in his (very good) book on writing says that fiction writing should be like an archeological excavation – you have to painstakingly dig down to uncover the treasure.

With most copywriting, of course, you need to follow a clear plan. But in order to speak effectively to your audience you still have to work out exactly what you’re trying to say.

Difference #2

Agenda. Copywriting nearly always has one –  sales, information, PR. Whereas if you try and push a Big Idea in a work of fiction you run a big risk of losing rather than converting your reader. Didacticism is usually pretty boring.

Obvious similarity #3

Ruthless editing. Whether it’s fiction or copywriting – at least fifty percent of good writing involves going back and changing, chopping, re-inserting, chopping again, re-writing, polishing. Obsessively, often neurotically. Striving to achieve an end result that speaks clearly and vividly to your audience. And which looks effortless, as though you didn’t even have to try.

As you’ve hopefully! gathered by now, I’m a children’s author and copywriter. The author of four YA novels published by Pan Macmillan, featuring lots of semi-lost teenagers. Also Stuck, which was shortlisted for the Speech Pathology of the Year Awards 2010 and a CBCA Notable Picture Book. Plus The Ghost at the Point in 2012, starring that adventurous eleven year old. The latter two are published by Walker Books. Plus a new picture book coming out in January 2017 with Hachette (Lothian imprint), The 12th Dog, illustrated by the brilliant Tom Jellett.
I can also be found on Google+Facebook and Twitter.

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  1. Julia Watson ·

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