Tips for Writing Picture Books: The Illustrator Is Your Partner

I concluded my last post with the following example of how rewrite the following 36 words:

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.

As a mere 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? Well, my friend, you must remember that …

The Illustrator Is Your Partner

If you’re writing a picture book manuscript, the only way it’s going to be published is if someone illustrates it. Yes, yes, this seems like an obvious statement. But I personally believe that many writers struggle to remember this. The sweat on Luke’s face will be illustrated. The color of his light saber – illustrated. The hand with which he’s holding the weapon – you guessed it, that’ll be illustrated.

But how will the illustrator know to put sweat on Luke’s face, you wonder? Should I add a note to the illustrator? The answer is an emphatic no. We picture book writers need to let the illustrators do their job. Illustrating is something that I cannot do, so I personally think it’s immeasurably harder than writing. If an illustrator is drawing a scene with Luke and Darth Vader, they’ll be able to add a certain amount of visual tension to the scene, however they choose to do it. It’s not a writer’s job to say how. Don’t sweat the little details .

Which leads me to my stance on illustrator notes. It’s pretty simple: Write a note to the illustrator if and only if a particular illustration is critical to the plot and can’t be discerned from the text. And only say what not how.

If it’s critical the missing toy is seen by the reader under the bed at the beginning of the journey for the eventual payoff when it is found, then put in an illustrator note. Say [illo: toy is under bed]. Do not say [illo: the toy is crammed under the bed behind a monster toy and a pink and purple chess set].

If you want the main character to have red curly hair, but it has no significance to the story, don’t say anything. Let the illustrator decide how to design the characters. If it’s that important for your character to have red curly hair, learn how to illustrate your own books. The illustrator’s not going to tell you how to write your story (although, I wonder if sometimes they want to? I’ll bet they do – I’ll have to ask them about this).

Curly Red Hair

And more than just letting the illustrators do their job, try to make their job as fun as possible. If you can write a text that leaves options open for the illustrator to go nuts – all the better. Sometimes what you don’t say is as important as what you do. Give the illustrators a world to play in – and let them make your world even better.

Next time I’ll talk about my pet peeve about the word was when I discuss how important it is to

Show Don’t Tell

Until then … [illo: insert a ‘to be continued’ graphic here]

To Be Continued - Back to the Future


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!


6 thoughts on “Tips for Writing Picture Books: The Illustrator Is Your Partner

  1. I’d love to read a companion piece to this written by an illustrator who has worked with a variety of PB authors. (I wish I knew someone to recommend, but I don’t. Do you?)

    — Tom


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