04 June, 2013

Lessons from Children's Writing

Did anybody else see this article from the BBC? Radio 2 ran a short story competition for children up to the age of 13 and received over 90 000 entries. And you thought the odds were stacked against you for Bridport or Bristol?!

The Oxford University Press fed all the stories - over 30 million words - into a database and analysed the words children were using in their creative writing. Here are a few of the facts from the article that interested me:

  • the most common word (presumably excluding words like 'the' and 'a') was Mum. Mum and its variants were mention about twice as often as Dad, although dads tended to be more active - fighting aliens and the like.
  • Some kids are pretty amazing at similes. Bearing in mind the kids are under 14 years-old, I was impressed with "As trustworthy as a fox with a chicken feather poking out of its mouth" and "As boring as a cake with no candles".
  • Text language wasn't used very much at all (hooray!), or only used in the correct context - e.g. when actually writing texts or using slang as part of speech.
  • Fantasy was the most common genre, with modern technology not playing a huge part in most stories.
  • Somewhere in Britain there is a kid who wrote this sentence: "I approached an altitudinous manor, that looked like a blackened statue of a ghost, damaged by the years of betrayal."
  • There is also a kid who wrote this: "Its hazy malachite skin gleamed with an amber slime, its emaciated tail propelling it through the tingling sea. It glanced only forward, its atramentous citron eyes fixating on its prey."*

Kids are pretty amazing. It heartens me that 90 000 stories were entered and that many of them show so much promise.

Of the whole article, however, the thing that interested me most was the comparison between adult writers and children. The car most likely to be mentioned by a child (both boys and girls) is a Ferrari. For adults its a Ford. When it comes to two-word nouns, adults talk about car parks and kitchen sinks; kids talk about space ships, time machines and tree houses. I know this is inevitable - children are less likely to worry about whether it's really believable their ordinary hero happens to drive a Ferrari - but it makes me a little bit sad. I feel that adults are letting the side down! Perhaps I'll try to include a tree house in my next short story.

Do you have children, or do you/did you teach primary-aged children? What sorts of things do children write about now and do you think it's different to 10/20/40 years ago?

*I'm sure you totally knew this already, but 'atramentous' refers to a substance, usually liquid, that is very black - such as the ink given off by a squid or octopus.


  1. I'm working on quite a few pieces of writing. 3 involve some of time related device. Not sure if that's good or bad.

    On the subject of text language, this is interesting http://www.ted.com/talks/john_mcwhorter_txtng_is_killing_language_jk.html

    nice article

    1. That was a great video, thanks. Fascinating! I feel really uncool - I had no idea people used the owrd 'slash' to change subject.

      I'm sure it's a good thing. Fantasy and sci-fi were the only genres not hit by the recession - everybody loves the impossible and improbable! Would love to read some of your stuff sometime.

  2. How in the world did they evaluate those stories? That is pretty cool though. Except for those kids who seem to write better than me, even though they're under 13. :)

    1. I think a computer did the hard work - I don't think they counted all the words by hand! I know, right? I'm totally stealing "blackened by years of betrayal" for my next (first) gothic horror story.

  3. Hooray! I've written a story with both a tree house and a space ship in it - I should finish it off and get it subbed somewhere to see if I can ool anyone into thinking I'm thirteen.

    I like the "statue of a ghost" line, but the one about the sea creature is a little over-seasoned for my tastes.

    Interesting stuff, though.

    1. A tree house AND a space ship? In the same story? Awesome.

      I know, isn't it gloriously pretentious? I kind of like that in kids' writing. If it was written by an adult, I'd rip it to shreds! Just like I love kids to use tonnes of adverbs and adjectives - to work on their vocabulary and imagination - then expect them to cut them all out when they get older!


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