One night about a year ago, I was lying in bed trying to fall asleep. Suddenly, a story popped into my head. Not just the idea—the words. I sprang out of bed and wrote every word down. In the morning, I woke up and re-read my work. I still loved it. In a perfect world, my work would have been done there. The truth is, more than a year later I am still editing that story. Why? Because writing and editing is hard work and it takes time.
Many writers think that pictures books are easy to write because they are short—typically between 32 and 40 pages. But any experienced writer will tell you that the fewer words you’re allowed, the harder a piece is to write. With short writing, every word counts.
So how can we beginning picture book writers learn how to self-edit our manuscripts? Here are five expert tips I’ve picked up from other experienced writers and editors.
(A note to self-publishers: you should be editing, too! Don’t skip out on these important ways to make your book better.
#1: Cut words
I’ve been advised that the goal word count for the average picture book right now is 500 words, although you’ll find a broad range of word counts in published books. Still, word economy is still important in picture book writing. As with any good writing if you can cut words, you should do so.
#2: Consider cutting your favorite parts
Many writers advise to “kill your darlings” or “cut your babies.” Your darlings are sentences you love most or thought were most clever and can’t imagine parting with. This advice is based on the observation that our darlings are often our most self-indulgent ideas.
I paid for a professional critique of my latest picture book and the editor recommended cutting several sentences to get closer to the magic 500-word goal. But the sentences she cut? I loved them. I thought they were hysterical. She thought they were superfluous. I resisted. On my third post-critique edit, I killed my darlings. The story was better. Dang it, she was right.
#3: Read aloud
If your picture book is published, it will almost always be read aloud. Parents will read it to their young kids. Teachers and librarians will read it to their students. Ideally, YOU will read it at bookstores, libraries and school visits until you’ve got it memorized. My point is, your book better sound good, not just look good or read well.
Have you ever read a rhyming book and hit a page where the cadence doesn’t work and you miss the rhyming pattern? Nobody likes it. (P.S., How did that book get published? Let me know if you figure it out.
#4: Imagine the illustrations
I’m not an illustrator, so this is one of the most helpful pieces of advice I have received. A reviewer of my latest manuscript reminded me that I was writing a picture book. The words, therefore, didn’t need to tell the whole story. Where could I rely on the illustrations instead of words, she asked?
This seemed obvious, but when I re-read my manuscript I realized I had included details that would much more cleverly be incorporated into the illustrations. I cut back on words, focused on showing vs. telling, and included some illustration notes describing details that I deleted from the manuscript but that were important for context. The next draft had significantly fewer words but made more sense and was funnier.
#5: Show it to someone else
Some people have no problem showing their creative work to others. I am not one of those people. I know intellectually that I am not defined by my work, but I promise you that if you think my story is stupid I will feel like you think I’m stupid. So I wrote for a long time without showing anyone my work.
With my most recent manuscript, I got to the point where I was changing a word here and a phrase there on each revision. Sometimes I undid changes I made in the previous draft. Other times I just stared at the page thinking—is this ready? When I showed the manuscript to an experienced picture book writer, the feedback shifted my thinking so completely that I restructured a good part of the book. I looked back at the previous draft and couldn’t believe I had thought it good enough.
All feedback is good. Feedback from an experienced picture book writers/readers is priceless.
Want to see the rest of the posts in this series? Start here.