Missing the Middle Grade Mark: 12 Common Manuscript Problems

Middle grade is hot.

Agents and editors are seeking more middle grade content as an answer to a saturated young adult market.

In the spring, I attended a talk on writing and publishing middle grade novels with Sky Pony Press senior editor, Alison Weiss.

She gave a list of the 12 most common middle grade manuscript pitfalls she sees in her query inbox.


MG = middle grade

YA = young adult

DA= diverse author

Problem #1 Your character is too young or too old

-There are two age levels for MG:

-Standard MG covers ages 8-12

-Upper MG covers ages 10up

-Keep in mind, readers read up. They want to read about kids slightly older than them.

Problem #2 Your voice isn’t authentic

-Are you conveying emotion realistically? Is it distinct?

-What makes this your story and no one else’s?

-Authenticity comes from being specific. Use details to evoke feelings. The more general you make things, the more alienating they become.

Problem #3 Your dialogue does not sound natural

-If your dialogue sounds stiff, your characters won’t feel real.

-Listen to how kids talk so you can portray that in your story.

-Your dialogue must match your character.

-Read your dialogue out loud. If it sounds weird coming out of your mouth, it’s weird coming out of the character.

Problem #4 Your vocabulary is too sophisticated

-MG readers are just getting comfortable reading. If they struggle too much with the words they’ll give up on your book and move on.

-Keep it simple.

-Give context for complicated words.

Problem #5 Situations that don’t make sense

-As a normal 8 to 12 year old living with your parents there are limits to the things you can do.

-How do you get around those limitations?

-If you are choosing a historical setting, it needs to be pivotal to what the characters are going through.

Problem #6 You are writing what you think is a middle grade experience, not what’s actually middle grade experience

-Some experiences are universal, others have changed. For example, having a cell phone.

-Observe kids:

-How do they speak?

-How do they act around each other?

-How do they spend their time?

-What are they watching?

-What do they do online?

Problem #7 A manuscript that lacks conflict

-Something needs to happen. The journey is the plot.

-You must ask yourself:

-What does your character want?

-What is in the way?

-What happens if they get it?

-Or not?

Problem #8 You’re making choices that will date your book

-You don’t want your manuscript to be out of date before it goes to press.

-If your manuscript is too “of the moment,” it will be obsolete tomorrow. Too old and it won’t resonate with young reader. Choose classic references.

-Be careful with your use of technology.

Problem #9 Your manuscript is too long

-Not everyone is JK Rowling.

-Readers are still getting comfortable reading

Problem #10 You don’t know the market

-To get to know the market, read books by successful MG authors.

-Examples to read: Jenny Holm, Jacqueline Woodson (DA), Sharon Creech, Laurel Snyderm, Chris Grabenstein

-DA Exaples: Jason Reynolds, Marjorie Agosin, Sherman Alexie, Rita Williams-Garcia

-Books exaples to read: Savy by Ingrid Law and Penderwick by Jeanne Birdsall.

-Adventure is an MG sweet spot.

Problem #11 Use of sex, drugs and other inappropriate content 

-Content like cursing, references to alcohol, smoking, drugs and sex can be problematic for this age group. It will limit your market because of gatekeepers like parents, teachers, librarians and school boards.

-With rare exception, these references don’t belong in MG.

-Keep in mind, your content will decide if you get on:

-Scholastics Book Club

-State Lists like the Florida Sunshine State, Texas Blue Bonnet and the State’s Library Association

Problem #12 You aren’t asking enough questions

-Did you seek help?

-Did you ask questions?

Send any comments, questions or delicious recipes for baked goods to @MayraECuevas