My Writing Life: 5

The first year or two that I began to freelance as a writer, I looked for all kinds of writing and editing work (hence the refrigeration manual I blogged about earlier). Eventually, however, I gravitated toward writing mainly educational materials for grades K through 12, as I may have explained in a previous blog.

In the course of doing so I ended up attending many, many educational conferences. Some of these may not even exist any more. My main purpose in attending was to learn about the publishers, to talk to them if possible, and to leave my business card.

From one such conference I ended up receiving an offer of year-long part-time (20 hours a week) work with School Zone Publishing Company of Grand Haven, Michigan. What a challenging but totally fun-filled, creative, and enjoyable experience this turned out to be. 

As School Zone’s writer-editor, I helped  develop some of their products by being the person who wrote them. A case in point is the first ten Start to Read books that School Zone asked me to write. I  had a year to write ten titles. Some were easy (Jog, Frog, Jog),  and some were difficult (The Gum on the Drum), but I did complete the assignment in time and in 1984 School Zone published their first ten Start to Read books.

An interesting digression in regard to the Start to Read titles is that around the year 2004 I began to receive letters from young mothers in their twenties. They wrote to tell me that they learned how to read using my Start to Read books, which they saved, and now their children were learning to read with the very same books. Now, in the year 2022, I am again receiving emails from those parents, who are now grandparents, telling me that their grandchildren are reading my Start to Read books. Really: could any writer ask for more?

But back to the 1980s and my employment with School Zone. In writing these books and working closely with School Zone’s owners and directors, I learned how to write to Lexile level. A Lexile level measures how difficult a piece of writing is. When writing for a second grader, for example, a writer would aim at a Lexile level of maybe 300L, and in writing for a tenth grader a Lexile level of maybe 900L. Today there are computerized programs which quickly analyze a text and determine its Lexile level, so it’s not as if the writer has to do this herself . . . although when I first started educational writing, I did have to do it myself by counting the number of words, the number of sentences, and, if I recall, the number of words not on a reading list, then doing some division and/or multiplication. This was a tedious process. At one point I joked that I needed a slide rule. Now it’s a matter of seconds for a computer to determine the Lexile level of a chunk of writing. Hooray for computers!

School Zone’s Start to Read series was tremendously successful with parents and with teachers. I can still remember the thrill of giving Sue Likes Blue to a five-year-old, who slowly read it aloud, sounding out each word. Her father then turned to me and said this was the first book his daughter had read out loud. Everyone in the room was quite excited.

I forget exactly how long I worked for School Zone as their freelance part-time writer-editor, but I think it was six or seven years. During that time I helped write the following: thirty or forty 32-page workbooks for grades 1-5; flash cards; computer games; the Start to Read series; a Read and Think series; and projects I’ve probably forgotten about.

This work was not only enjoyable, but for a writer it was also highly valuable. I learned to work as both a writer and editor: to analyze a story from two points of view. And I learned to work with everybody in the process of producing books: the developers of the ideas, fellow writers, designers, and illustrators.

Eventually it was time for me to go. I felt I had adult books inside me: books wanting to burst out and be heard. And I think School Zone felt it needed a new outlook, new voices. 

While working for School Zone I managed to acquire an agent for my first novel, She’s on First, and sign a contract with Contemporary Books. From there I went to researching what became my first nonfiction book, Women at Play: The Story of Women in Baseball. I was happy to have the time to work on adult fiction and nonfiction full time, as opposed to part-time. And in writing for adults, I didn’t have to think about Lexile levels!

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Barbara Gregorich paid no attention whatsoever to grade level or lexiles when writing adult books such as her second mystery novel, Sound Proof.