Tips for Writing Picture Books: Every Word Counts

I concluded my last post with the following question: How do you get an entire story crammed into 549 words or less? The answer is to make sure that …

Every Word Counts

I’m not talking about your ‘word count’ being less than or equal to 549 words (that’s right, I’m starting the trend of raising the new maximum word count of picture books to 549 … as of right now). I’m saying you should try to convey every action, every character interaction in as few words as possible. If you can say something in 5 words instead of 10, say it in 5. If you have a phrase or sentence that doesn’t move the story along or add anything to the scene, remove it.

I’m not saying your picture book manuscripts should be bullet lists of things that happen – they should be art, not a PowerPoint presentation. Sometimes the ‘Every Word Counts’ rule can go too far. I’ve heard people say not to use adverbs, and even adjectives should be used sparingly. I personally believe that this is wrong. If an adverb or adjective improves your story, then use it. Just make sure that adverb or adjective is necessary. Many times they can be removed with no determent to the story. But sometimes, they’re just lovely enough to keep in.

Darth_vader_Vs_Luke_by_SirFabi

Let’s look at an example of how to make every word count:

As sweat dripped slowly down Luke’s face, he stood with his blue light saber in his right hand. The evil Darth Vader had to be stopped before he could do even more harm to the galaxy.

You might rewrite those 36 words as these 11:

Luke stood ready to fight. Darth Vader had to be stopped!

But what about the sweat on Luke’s face? The color of his light saber? How do we know which hand he fights with? How do we know Darth Vader is evil? Or what he plans to do if he’s not stopped?

Let’s start with Darth Vader. If he had to be stopped, we can assume the readers know he’s the bad guy (it’s likely they already knew this from previous pages). And we can let the readers guess at what might happen if he isn’t stopped. It isn’t necessary to tell them, especially since it isn’t happening – at least not at this moment in the story. And even more harm to the galaxy is such a vague statement, that the reader would still have to imagine what his future plans are anyway. That phrase adds nothing. So cut it.

Regarding Luke, the answer is …

The Illustrator Is Your Partner

But that’s a topic for another day!

 

See all of Josh Funk’s 12-Step Guide to Writing Picture Books

Lesson #1: So, You Wrote a Book. Now What?
Lesson #2: Picture Books Are Short
Lesson #3: Every Word Counts
Lesson #4: The Illustrator Is Your Partner
Lesson #5: Show Don’t Tell
Lesson #6: Write with Active Emotion
Lesson #7: Story Arc Components
Lesson #8: Don’t Write In Rhyme
Lesson #9: Rhyming Is All About Rhythm
Lesson #10: Some Ideas Don’t Work
Lesson #11: Keep Learning
Lesson #12: Now You’re Ready! Dive In!

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3 thoughts on “Tips for Writing Picture Books: Every Word Counts

  1. Great topic to write about! I’m not writing that just because I am in the middle of writing a post talking about the same topic, but because writers, me included can get too wordy. When it comes to picture books, less is more, as long as the less is written well that is!

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