Tips for Writing Picture Books: Don’t Write in Rhyme

Today I share the reasons I’ve been told:

Don’t Write in Rhyme

“Why not?” you ask.

“But publishers are constantly printing new rhyming picture books.”

“I’ve heard librarians like reading rhyming books at story time.”

“Children love rhyme, don’t they?”

“But Dr. Seuss was amazing and he only wrote in rhyme.”

and so on …

Here are the two simple reasons you should not write rhyming picture books:

  1. The Business Reason: Rhyming picture books cannot be easily translated into other languages. Therefore, rhyming picture books are immediately less valuable to agents and publishers.
  2. The Artistic Reason: It’s very easy to write bad rhymes. Lots of people do it. Therefore, there is a stigma associated with rhyming picture books – a cringe-worthy stain on the entire genre (I’m not kidding – I got a very painful looking cringe from a highly respected and successful agent when I told her I wrote picture books in rhyme – a look you might give someone when they tell you their dog died … a horrific death).

The Business Reason is pretty obvious. Yes, it’s possible a loose translation might work in some languages. And maybe (hopefully) your story and characters are good enough to be satisfyingly told without rhyme. But … maybe not.

The Artistic Reason is more layered. Even if your rhyming picture book is flawlessly superb both in content and execution, there is an excellent chance that agents will choose not to read it because, in fairness, most of the rhyme they receive is bad rhyme. If they have to read 99 bad rhyming manuscripts to get to your good one, was it really worth their time?

(hint: the answer is no)

What is bad rhyme, anyway? Well, there a lots of types of rhyme crime:

  • Simple, everyday, cliche rhyme: “My cat ate my hat, well look at that.”
  • Near rhyme: “I see a staple, it’s right on the table.”
  • Forced rhyme: “I opened my giant umbrella. It’s raining, I said to that fella.”
  • Regional rhyme: “In England, you see lots of rain. But I’m in the U.S. again.”
  • Seussian rhyme: “Dr. Seuss was Dr. Seuss, and nobody else can do that shlamboose.”
  • Yoda rhyme: “It’s raining and wet. In the car, I must get.”

But the worst bad rhyme has nothing to do with rhyme. Rhyme is the 3rd most important aspect of a rhyming picture book.

The #1 most important aspect of a rhyming picture book is that it has to be a good story. It must have characters, emotion, plot, arc, and all the other aspects that make up picture books (see parts 1-6 of this series).

The 2nd most important aspect of a rhyming picture book is the rhythm. Rhythm is way more important than rhyme.  Any preschooler can rhyme. Rhyming is easy. That’s why I say writing a rhyming picture isn’t about rhyming …

Rhyming Picture Books Are All About Rhythm

More on that later, I’ve got to shlamboose!

 

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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12 thoughts on “Tips for Writing Picture Books: Don’t Write in Rhyme

    1. Oh, yes, and Paul’s books are great! Like I said, publishers keep printing rhyming picture books because there is definite value to them. But as a writer, you’re adding hurdles to your path to publication simply by being a ‘rhymer.’

      I’m not claiming I’m an expert by any means – I’m just relaying things I’ve learned. And this lesson was a tough one to swallow. But if you’re up for the added challenge of being a rhymer, it’s all the more satisfying when you succeed (did I not mention that LADY PANCAKE AND SIR FRENCH TOAST and DEAR DRAGON: A Pen Pal Tale are both written in rhyme?).

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  1. Hi. I have written two Skeleton Jones children’s picture books in rhyme. They have good plots, good rhyming and great rhythm. Do you think I should give up on them because editors and agents won’t even read them? How discouraging is that?
    LIL

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    1. I don’t think that editors and agents won’t read rhyming picture book manuscripts. I know that editors do, because they continue to get published.

      I don’t know how many writers acquire agent representation based solely on rhyming picture book manuscripts without any prior picture book sales. That, I would guess, is probably rather low.

      An agent once told me that despite the fact that she liked my writing, she didn’t feel comfortable signing someone who wrote only in rhyme.

      Without having seen your manuscripts, I would generally say that you’re putting yourself at a disadvantage by choosing to write in rhyme. But I can’t advise that you give up on rhyme, because I could never take that advice myself.

      If you are capable of writing in prose, and you yourself like writing in prose, then I would say it’s worth pursuing some prose stories in addition to your rhyming ones. That will only make you more attractive to an agent.

      Have you tried sending a single submission to publishers that accept unsolicited submissions? This has been known to work in the past for writers of rhyming picture books.

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      1. Thank you for your suggestions. They make good sense. I have two favorite rhyming Skeleton Jones books, which I’ve decided to concentrate on submitting. However, I have also written several other books in prose. Do you think I should send out my “prose” mss first, or send them my Skeleton Jones ms (a possible series), and tell the agents that I also have written prose mss.
        Thank you. How kind of you to respond.
        Sincerely,
        LIL

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    2. Lillian,

      If you’re submitting to agents, I would probably not send rhyme. I might mention you have other manuscripts, but I would not mention that they are written in rhyme.

      If you are sending to publishers, I would send only one manuscript submission. I would research the publishers, the types of books they have published in the past, and submit whichever of your manuscripts seems to be the best fit for that publisher. In the case of publisher submissions, I would not mention any other unpublished manuscripts as the editor is really looking at the individual piece you submitted more than you as the writer.

      Suggesting a possible series, from what I have heard, is frowned upon (whether sending to agents or editors). While it may be more applicable to longer works, if you were to sell a book (or acquire an agent with a book), it would likely go through enough revisions which would make the sequel or other book(s) in the series no longer fit.

      It doesn’t hurt to mention you’ve explored other story ideas with the same character (i.e. Skeleton Jones), but I’m not sure that would go in any submission letter or query. It’s not likely to help you sell an individual story. If an agent likes your first Skeleton Jones and says s/he’d like to see more of your work, that would be the time to share that information. If they like your style of writing, but not Skeletons, having mentioned you have more Skeleton Jones stories is not going to help your cause.

      In my relatively unqualified opinion, I would advise, at this point in your career, to keep the ‘sequels’ in your back pocket. Shop your best individual stories, whether they are from series or not.

      Best of luck.

      Josh

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      1. Hello again. Thank you for your reply to my inquiry. I wish I’d known about you sooner.
        Your advice makes good sense, and I’ll certainly follow your suggestions.
        Sincerely . . . Lillian

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  2. Then there are middle grade “novels in verse”. Sometimes, I get e ARCs of them, and when I increase the size of the font, I don’t even realize they are IN verse. If it has no rhyme AND no rhythm, and the text is just chopped up in short, sort of nonsensical lines, does this make it verse? *shakes head*

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