The value of testing your writing on readers

Advice from author Anna Ciddor at the 2022 Bendigo Writers’ Festival

At the Bendigo Writers’ Festival recently, author and illustrator Anna Ciddor admitted she’d “lost count” of the number of drafts she had written for her latest book, a children’s novel called The Boy Who Stepped Through Time (Allen and Unwin Children’s).

But she did know roughly how many drafts she did for the illustrations – “around 42”. 

Ciddor, a warm and engaging speaker and award-winning author, generously shared an early draft of the opening pages of the novel to prove her point – that tenacity and the willingness to listen to your audience about what’s working and what’s not, are the keys to good story telling.

Initially, she had opened the story with her young protagonist as a slave in Ancient Rome, but this hadn’t resonated with young readers at the schools she’d visited.

It took a teacher to point out that the world and its language were too foreign. And it took a student’s comment that it felt like a “time changing” book to understand what was missing. 

In the next draft, Ciddor created a new protagonist who mirrored her audience – an 11-year-old boy called Perry, aka Peregrinus, trying to comprehend this strange world as an accidental time-traveller. Her original protagonist became Carotus, the young Roman slave boy who befriends him.

The result is a story that shines a light on life in Roman times, with a torch held by the protagonist.

It’s well known that the best writing comes from rewriting, but rewriting is more than just improving word choice and sentence structure – it’s persevering until you  find the best way to tell that particular story.

Anna Ciddor is an Australian author and illustrator and the recipient of the 2021 Nance Donkin Literary Award. Three of her novels were selected as Notable Books by the Children’s Book Council of Australia, and several have been translated into other languages. Her sister Tamara Lewit, (School of Historical and Philosophical Studies, the University of Melbourne), an archeologist specialising in the Roman Empire, was her researcher for The Boy Who Stepped Through Time.

Many more great writing tips can be found on Anna Ciddor’s website:

Our hero, Peregrinus (Perry), with slave boy Carotus and the master’s daughter Valentia, illustrated by the author. (Apologies for shadowing from reverse illustration in the book).