Interview With a Pro:
How Pegi Deitz Shea Uses Copywriting Skills to Write Award-Winning Children's Books

Pegi Deitz Shea has published more than 250 articles, poems, and essays for adult readers. She is the former Director of Advertising and PR at Unitel Video, and her freelance articles about the production industry have appeared in Television Broadcast Europe, Millimeter, Back Stage, Film and Video, and Videography. Pegi is now an award-winning children's book author and instructor for the Institute of Children's Literature. We recently spoke with her to find out how she uses her copywriting skills when writing for children.

TGT: How did you get involved with children's literature?

PDS: It was by accident. In 1986, my husband and I relocated from the metropolitan New York area to Connecticut. While I continued doing freelance PR and advertising work, I searched for a creative-writing critique group. The one I finally found was comprised of writers who publish for both adult and child audiences.

TGT: What's the biggest difference between writing for children and writing for adults?

PDS: Most people would think it's the vocabulary, but the main difference is the syntax. For children, you're not going to get away with a sentence that has three dependent clauses, plus compound verbs, plus five prepositional phrases.

Another major difference is the point of view (POV) of your main character. In most successful children's stories, the story is told, or filtered through, only the main character ("single POV") – regardless of whether it's told in first person or third. That means no omniscient narrator butting in and saying, "Meanwhile, back at the ranch …"

Also, children's books – fiction and nonfiction – aren't divided so much by genre (mystery, history) as by age group.

TGT: You mentioned that simple syntax is important for children. That's also true in copywriting. What other copywriting skills do you use?

PDS: Perhaps the most important skill that carries over from copywriting to writing for children is knowing your audience: the children, their parents and teachers who purchase the books, and the editors who make the books available for sale. You don't need to have children in order to write for children. You have to be able to think like a child, albeit one with 20/20 foresight.

In a micro-sense, writing a story or article for children compares with writing promo copy or short magazine pieces for adult readers. You want to hook your reader right away. And you need to lay out the complexities, obstacles, and details in the middle, and deliver the goods at the end. Active voice engages readers. Cliches kill. Fresh language delights them. Lack of organization confuses readers. Logic rewards them. Predictability lets them down. Surprise makes them soar.

TGT: How did you become involved with the Institute of Children's Literature?

PDS: After I had written a tremendous number of picture books and children's novels, a friend told me about the Institute. We checked each other out, and I agreed to correspondence-teach two of their courses. Now, I also train instructors. Take it from someone who has had years of literary theory and practice (and is married to a Lit professor), their programs go above and beyond college level. (In fact, the Institute is accredited by the Connecticut State Dept. of Higher Education.)

TGT: What would you say is the one thing you must do to guarantee your success as a children's book writer?

PDS: Sales and good publicity make you more desirable to editors. So market yourself by applying your sales skills to promoting yourself. Don't stop once you're published. Do school visits (which are quite lucrative). Do teacher and librarian conference talks, which snowball into school visits, which snowball into sales.

TGT: Any last words of encouragement?

PDS: Yes. Make your good luck happen – and then keep feeding it with new ideas and written pieces.

[Editors Note: We've gotten to know the people behind The Institute of Children's Literature over the last year and we're impressed with the course materials and program quality.

For example, members in the children's literature program receive a 10-lesson manual; exercises, checklists, and how-to's with each lesson; an anthology of contemporary stories, indexed by age group and genre; a grammar handbook; and a book of selected essays written by award-winning authors regarding the craft of writing.

Each student studies with a published author (like Pegi Deitz Shea), who spends about an hour evaluating each assignment. Like us, their courses equip you with meticulous up-to-date resources and show you how to market your work. This marketing support is what differentiates the Institute from a community college course or a simple how-to book because they're training their students to develop their own resources.

For more information about the Children's Institute of Literature, click on http://www.writingforchildren.com/E6522]

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Published: August 26, 2002

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