Top 5 Mistakes Writers Make When Writing a Picture Book
Avoid these writing mishaps to prevent your readers from getting bored with your story
Children’s picture books can be written in all sorts of ways. But as an editor of picture books, I’ve noticed a steady trend of writing mishaps that need to be addressed — and I’m not talking about grammar and spelling. Check out the top five mistakes I see writers make when writing a picture book and examine if your book hits the mark.
#1: The Story is Too Long
I dread seeing picture book manuscripts in the 2,000- or 3,000-word count range! There are some exceptions, such as picture storybooks that are generally non-fiction, a little more text-heavy, and targeted for slightly older audiences (ages 7 to 10). But some writers forget that the target audience for picture books include children who . . .
- Are primarily ages 2 to 7 years old
- Cannot read yet or are new to reading
- Tend to naturally have super short attention spans
And as a result, writers create super lengthy picture books that will most likely prevent their readers from being engaged with the story and ultimately lead them to becoming bored very quickly.
In children’s book publishing, the average word count for children’s picture books is between 500 and 700 words, and definitely no more than 1,000. So, try your best to keep your story no longer than 1,000 words. If you’re not sure how to keep your story within the proper range, don’t worry! It’s something that can be fixed. Remember: Less is more.
#2: Writing in Passive Voice Instead of Active Voice
No one likes a dull story, including children. That’s why picture books should have just as much fun, thrill, and excitement as any other book. And to do so, writers should use the Active Voice technique.
Unlike Passive Voice, which refrains from using strong action words to create sentences that are indirect, Active Voice uses strong action verbs to create sentences that are more direct. Here’s an example:
With Active Voice, the subject performs the action:
Terrence kicked the ball.
With Passive Voice, the subject receives the action:
The ball was kicked by Terrence.
“Run,” “throw,” and “punch” are examples of strong action words that help create Active Voice.
Overall, Active Voice is a simple yet powerful writing technique that provides so much impact and interest to a story. It can help readers (and listeners) see and understand the action being performed. Because of this, Active Voice should always be used when writing a children’s picture book.
#3: Too Much Summarization
Obviously, picture books include pictures to help tell the story. But that doesn’t mean writers should summarize scenes and hope readers will understand. “Show, Don’t Tell” is a technique I share often with writers to help prevent them from using summarization to depict elements in a story. It gives writers the opportunity to describe actions, emotions, and scenes instead of using summarization and exposition to create a story. Here’s an example:
The mailman dropped the mail and trembled when he saw Mrs. Peterson’s pit bull growling at him next to her mailbox.
The mailman became nervous when he saw an angry pit bull next to Mrs. Peterson’s mailbox.
“Dropped the mail” and “trembled” indicate that he was frightened or nervous. “Growling” shows the pit bull was angry or preparing to attack the mailman.
In other words, don’t “tell” readers what’s occurring; “show” them with strong verbs and adjectives. And as you can see, “Show, Don’t Tell” also works hand in hand with Active Voice as they help each other build stories with impact, power, and emotion.
#4: Weak Opening Line/Paragraph
As I previously mentioned, the attention spans of young readers (and listeners) are short, and they have no time nor patience to deal with slow-moving intros. In fact, some stories I’ve edited don’t pick up in excitement or speed until midway into the story. But that type of delay could keep young readers bored and away. Therefore, it’s always best to begin your story with a strong opening line or paragraph that does at least one of the following:
- Evokes a reaction or emotion from readers
- Introduces the main character’s conflict and/or goal
- Depicts a scene of action that helps set the tone for the rest of the story
Overall, writing a strong opening line or paragraph draws readers in and encourages them to keep reading (or listening).
#5: Fluctuating Tenses (Past, Present, Future)
Trying to determine whether to write your story in the past, present, or future tense can be tricky. When you start to write your story, you will probably start writing in a tense without even thinking about it. And that’s okay! Although, as an editor, I often see writers switch tenses throughout the story, which could confuse the reader.
The key is to stay consistent. Stick with one tense throughout the entire story, unless it’s intentional and it’s clear that it’s intentional. If you’re not sure which tense in which to write your story, first take a moment to write it in one tense; then re-write it in another tense and analyze how the tenses affect the delivery, forward movement, pacing, and tone of the story.