The 8-year-old test

Dr. Hoenikker used to say that any scientist who couldn’t explain to an eight-year-old what he was doing was a charlatan.

– Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle

One of the things that Andy Cope said in today’s podcast (it’s live now – was about writing for children. As well as his books on happiness theory and his PhD thesis (possibly the longest PhD gestation in history), Andy writes the Spy Dog series, books aimed at 8-year-olds about, well, a spy dog, obviously, called Lara. I happen to have an 8-year-old, so I can say with some authority that Andy has squarely hit the demographic – my son absolutely loves them.

Andy made a joke about this:

I’ve nearly got a PhD, but I’ve also got a mental age of about eight, and that puts me in a very lonely part of a Venn diagram.

But the more I think about it, the more I think that corner of the Venn diagram is exactly where I’d like to be: a huge amount of in-depth knowledge and original research behind me, coupled with the ability to explain it in a way that makes people feel entertained and enlightened rather than impressed by my credentials but bored rigid. 

It’s something I’ve taught myself to do instinctively anyway: if I read back over what I’ve written and catch myself getting all pompous and verbose, or just getting lost in my own wordage, I stand up and pretend I’m explaining it to my 8-year-old. It’s going to need to include a story or two, maybe even a joke, and I’m not only going to have to get to the point quickly but make it very clear why it was worth getting there at all. 

Not a bad discipline for any writer. Give it a try.