Skip to main content

3 Big Tips for Writing a Children’s Picture Book Like a Pro

Small but mighty, picture books help raise children into lifelong readers. Children's book author Diana Murray offers 3 big tips for writing a picture book like a pro.

As a mom, I got to see first hand how much my kids got from reading. They expanded their vocabularies, learned about the world around them, and incorporated book themes into their playtime. I was also lucky enough to feel the wonderful bond it creates when a child sits on your lap and you experience a story together. Perhaps you have, too.

(So You Wrote a Picture Book, Now What?)

Perhaps you’ve fallen in love with the picture book genre and want to write one of your own! That’s exactly what happened to me about 15 years ago. I’ve learned a lot along the way. For one thing, although they’re short, picture books are harder to write than you might think!

Here are some tips to help you write a manuscript that works.

3 Big Tips for Writing a Children’s Picture Book Like a Pro

1. Read Like a Writer

It’s important to read classics, but make sure you’re incorporating lots of new books, too. The genre has changed a lot over the years. If you pay attention to which books you (and your kids) tend to like the most, you might get a better idea of the type of book you want to write.

Reading like a writer is a little bit different than reading just for pleasure. If you’re reading with kids, try rereading the books on your own. I like to do mini critiques of them and then check major reviewers (like Kirkus) to see if they agree with me.

Another great exercise is to take a few of your favorite books and type out all the text on your computer, indicating page numbers, and making notes about which parts are funny, where the action escalates, on which page the climax is, and so forth. I have found that to be super helpful. You can use your notes as a blueprint to practice writing a story with the same sort of structure.

2. Cut, Cut, Cut

Picture books have gotten shorter and shorter over the years. But aside from that, you can usually pack more punch and hold your readers’ attention better if you keep your story as short as possible while still effectively telling the story you need to tell.

3 Big Tips for Writing a Children’s Picture Book Like a Pro

There is a famous quote by Abraham Lincoln: “I'm sorry I wrote such a long letter. I did not have the time to write a short one.” I’m not sure if Lincoln was truly the one who said that, but no matter what, the meaning is clear. Picture books seem easy to write because they’re short. But in truth, cutting all those words takes a lot of work!

Writers can sometimes get attached to sections or phrases they love. But you mustn’t revise timidly! What I like to do is think of it as putting those parts aside rather than completely eliminating them from existence. Maybe you’ll use them in another project. Maybe they’ll inspire something new. You can keep those versions in a separate document. No writing is ever wasted!

Joining a critique group is a great way to strengthen your revising skills. And getting feedback on your own work is just as important as giving feedback. Both can help that “revision muscle” grow.

3. Visualize The Invisible

Picture Books are different from other books in two crucial ways. Firstly, each page turn is extremely important. Page turns can help build tension or highlight surprises. For example, in Help Mom Work From Home!, the text on one page is “Have meetings, take notes,/make some calls, be persistent./For even more help…” Then the next page finishes the sentence: “...you can hire an assistant!” The humor and surprise would not have the same effect if that were all on one page. Use page turns to your advantage! That brings me to my second point.

The text only tells half the story. The rest of the story is told by the illustrations. On the page that says “...you can hire an assistant!”, the illustration shows a cat wearing a tie being carried to Mom’s aid. If the text had been, “...you can hire a cat as an assistant!”, it just wouldn’t have the same punch. Think of the illustrations as enhancing what you have written. The interplay of text and illustrations makes picture books unique and engaging. This aspect also helps keep the text short because you don’t have to say everything in the text.

help_mom_work_from_home_written_by_diana_murray_illustrated_by_cori_doerrfeld_picture_book_cover_image

IndieBound | Bookshop | Amazon
[WD uses affiliate links.]

If you are not the illustrator, you should still visualize the illustrations. You can do this by making notes in the margins or making rough sketches (even if you can’t draw). You don’t have to show that to anyone. It’s just a way of helping you make the text stronger.

And to visualize the page turns, I always use page numbers in my text. Again, you don’t necessarily have to share the page numbers when you submit, but it can help you plan where to break your text. Most picture books have 32 pages. Of those, approximately 15 two-page spreads are actually usable for text, since publishers must account for copyright information. To write like a professional, make sure you study the picture book format. The number of pages in a picture book is fairly standard within traditional publishing.

Of course, you shouldn’t get so bogged down with all these rules that you aren’t having fun! Let your passion shine on the page. Enjoy the journey!

Shirlene Obuobi: On Writing From Experience

Shirlene Obuobi: On Writing From Experience

Physician, cartoonist, and author Shirlene Obuobi discusses the writerly advice that led to writing her new coming-of-age novel, On Rotation.

WD Poetic Form Challenge

WD Poetic Form Challenge: Kimo Winner

Learn the winner and Top 10 list for the Writer’s Digest Poetic Form Challenge for the kimo.

8 Things Writers Should Know About Tattoos

8 Things Writers Should Know About Tattoos

Tattoos and their artists can reveal interesting details about your characters and offer historical context. Here, author June Gervais shares 8 things writers should know about tattoos.

Tyler Moss | Reporting Through Lens of Social Justice

Writing Through the Lens of Social Justice

WD Editor-at-Large Tyler Moss makes the case for reporting on issues of social justice in freelance writing—no matter the topic in this article from the July/August 2021 issue of Writer's Digest.

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Intentional Trail

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Intentional Trail

Every good story needs a nice (or not so nice) turn or two to keep it interesting. This week, have a character leave clues for people to find them.

Sharon Maas: On Books Finding the Right Time

Sharon Maas: On Books Finding the Right Time

Author Sharon Maas discusses the 20-year process of writing and publishing her new historical fiction novel, The Girl from Jonestown.

6 Steps to Becoming a Good Literary Citizen

6 Steps to Becoming a Good Literary Citizen

While the writing process may be an independent venture, the literary community at large is full of writers who need and want your support as much as you need and want theirs. Here, author Aileen Weintraub shares 6 steps in becoming a good literary citizen.

Daniel Paisner: On the Pursuit of a Creative Life

Daniel Paisner: On the Pursuit of a Creative Life

Journalist and author Daniel Paisner discusses the process of writing his new literary fiction novel, Balloon Dog.

Poetry Prompt

Wednesday Poetry Prompts: 614

Every Wednesday, Robert Lee Brewer shares a prompt and an example poem to get things started on the Poetic Asides blog. This week, write a summer poem.