Top 12 Tips for Writing a (Good) Picture Book



Writing a picture book is easy.

Writing a good picture book is hard.

But how, you ask?

Top twelve newbie tips for writing a picture book, plus one bonus thought*

(so okay technically that makes it 13 but who’s counting?)

By Bitsy Kemper

  1. You’ve written a great story, and formatted it into standard picture book manuscript form. You’re getting ready to submit it to an editor or agent. How do you find an illustrator? TRICK QUESTION. You DON’T. [You don’t submit your manuscript with images or photos. Respectable publishers don’t want you to find an illustrator. Your job is to write so beautifully that it opens up illustration possibilities. Leave the actual artwork to professionals, just as they leave the writing to you.]
  2. A story has a beginning, middle, and end. A series of anecdotes, no matter how charming, isn’t a book.
  3. Pop quiz: Who said good writing is rewriting? It doesn’t matter. Just know that what you have now will go through MANY rounds of edits/changes before it’s ready for prime time. It’s not a sign of weakness to edit, change, rearrange, repeat. Working on your manuscript shows dedication and commitment to perfection. Don’t your readers deserve that?
  4. Do your homework. Research and study as many great picture books as you can. Why do they work? How? Notice how the book’s illustrations wouldn’t work without the words, or how the words wouldn’t come across without illustrations. You’ll soon see why both words and images are equally important. In picture books, you can’t have one without the other. The nomenclature “picture book” makes it clear: images (picture) and words/story (book) together. Read a hundred picture books, literally. Don’t just spend an hour in the kid section of the library. Spend days, weeks, months. The more you read from a content and format perspective, the more you’ll see  why good books work, and, odds are, the better your book will be.
  5. Take it out of rhyme. I haven’t read your manuscript, but I can assure you it’s not working. Sorry. Rhyme has to be PERFECT, not “close enough.” Perfection takes lots and lots of practice. (Pls see earlier reference to homework!)
  6.  “Fiona the Floormop”? “Becky’s BFF Bakes Biscuits”? NO. Alliteration and anthropomorphisms (giving human qualities to something non living, like a talking mop) are at the top of the DON’T list for most editors/agents.
  7. Speaking of editors/agents, they DON’T CARE if it’s a true story, or if your grandkids love it, or if getting a book published is something you’ve always wanted to do. All they care about is the story. Is it good? Different? Compelling? Will an audience want to read it again and again?
  8. Don’t moralize. No one wants to be talked down to or lectured. (In a well-written book, the reader figures out the moral of the story without being told pointblank what it is. If you have to call it out, your story’s not written well enough.)
  9. Join SCBWI! Attend a conference – as many as you can in fact. The more you understand the industry, the better you’ll be able to serve it. Imagine wanting to gold medal in luge but you never watched a game or met any fellow and/or award-winning lugers. Your desire to succeed will be stalled by your lack of involvement, interaction, and experience. Conferences are a great way to make writer friends, too. We’re good peeps! (Well, for the most part—there’s always that one guy…)
  10. You don’t have to have an agent—but it usually helps.
  11. Plan on getting rich? AHHAHAHAHAHAH Contracts can range from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand. To top it off, you split your +/- 10% cut of book sale price with the illustrator. You might only get 25¢ per book sold! You’d need to sell quite a few books before you even earn lunch money. And since books tend to go out of print in roughly two years, those books need to sell quickly.
  12. If you don’t have patience, find some. It can take YEARS for a manuscript to get accepted, and then another year—two or three isn’t unheard of—before it’s on the store shelf.
  13. The good news? Even if you never get published, I bet you’ll enjoy the process. My husband still plays soccer every Mon/Weds/Fri. Will he get drafted by a pro team? No. That’s not why he plays. He straps on his cleats and hits the field because he loves the game. If writing doesn’t make your heart sing, consider another career or hobby. You’re the only one who can make you happy.

*There are always exceptions to the rule. But not many. Swimming upstream is best left for after you’ve had several successful books under your belt. That’s not to say take the easy path. Know what you’re up against and arm yourself accordingly. Then the road won’t be as bumpy.