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You got this! Tips for writing a picture book

June 13, 2024

By Lesléa Newman, faculty, writing for children and young adults


Congratulations! You have already done all the research necessary for writing a children’s book. You have had the experience of being a child. Lean into that.

Lesléa at one year old—with a book on her lap!

Start with something other than “once upon a time.” End with something other than “And they lived happily ever after.” Be original.


Keep descriptions short. Refrain from writing long descriptions such as “Autumn wore a pair of faded overalls with patches on the knees, a white t-shirt, and yellow boots.” Leave this type of visual detail to your illustrator.


Use sensory images such as sounds, smells, textures, and tastes, which are harder to illustrate than sights. Use metaphor and simile to describe them. “Papa pulled a birthday cake out of the oven and soon the whole house smelled like a holiday.”


Avoid inverted sentences for the sake of rhyme. Do not commit this rhyme crime:

“It was time to have fun and play pretend.

I hopped off my chair when came my friend.”


Use simple dialogue markers such as “she said,” “he asked” and “they answered.” You want these words to recede, not take center stage. Avoid clunky dialogue markers such as “she queried,” “he extrapolated,” “they retorted,” which draw attention to themselves.


Leave room for the artist’s imagination and visual storytelling. Only insert an art note when absolutely necessary (which is almost never).


Use literary techniques that young readers love, such as alliteration, assonance, rhythm, and repetition. Remember picture books are written to be read out loud.


Read your work out loud. Better yet, have someone else read your work out loud to you.

You know how you want your words to sound. A “cold” reader will help you hear places in your text where your rhythm is off, your prose is cluttered, etc.


Remember that young readers love rhyme. Do not believe it when you hear that editors do not want to see picture books written in rhyming verse. What editors don’t want to see are badly written books in rhyming verse.


Lesléa’s two newest picture books, just published Spring 2024.

Keep your word count to 1,000 words. Try for 800 words. Then try for 500 words. Then try for 300 words. You’ll be amazed at what is not necessary to your story. Make sure every word earns its space on the page.


Make sure you give your illustrator something to illustrate on every page or double-spread. Make a thirty-two-page dummy so you can see whether you’ve done this or not.


Revise, revise, revise, revise, revise. The end result should look effortless, as if one day your story just spilled out of your pen, though this is hardly ever the case. Most writers I know, including myself, revise a picture book at least twenty times. And that’s before an editor gets their hands on it and offers editorial notes.


Keep an open mind when you receive your editor’s notes. Remember that your editor wants the same thing that you want: to create the best book possible. If your editor suggests something, try it. You may decide that your editor’s suggestion is spot on. You may decide you want to keep your work just as it is. Or as you revise, something completely different may appear on the page that turns out to be just what your story needed.


Keep your spirits up if your manuscript gets declined. Offer it again. And again. And again. Notice I do not use the words “submit” and “rejected.” Remember that you are offering something of value that may be declined, not rejected. And hopefully it will be accepted. Remember, it just takes one editor to fall in love with your story.


Most important of all, do not underestimate the importance of your stories, your unique voice, and the genius that is you!


Lesléa Newman has created more than eighty books for readers of all ages. Her most recent are pictured in this post. Another recent title, Always Matt: A Tribute to Matthew Shepard, is a book-length fully illustrated poem that celebrates Matthew Shepard’s life and legacy.




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