Hiring a professional editor is a critical step in the self-publishing process. But, if you send your book off to a pro the minute you finish scribbling down the last few words of your rough draft, you’re skipping a critical step in the writing process – self-editing.
“But my manuscript is a children’s picture book,” you might say. “How much editing can it need?”
The answer is…more than you think! In fact, picture books are so different from other genres of writing, and have so many visual elements to consider, they sometimes require MORE editing than a novel or short story.
- Why self-editing is important
- Why self-editing a picture book requires a unique approach
- Developmental Self-Editing Strategies for picture books
- Line-Level Self-Editing Strategies for picture books
- When You’re Ready to Hire a Professional Editor
Table of contents
Why Self-Editing Is Important
There are two main reasons why self-editing is a critical step in the writing process:
1. It Ensures You Know Your Own Story
You may have heard that famous quote from Terry Pratchett that says, “The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.” It’s true! And I don’t know about you, but sometimes it’s a real struggle to get the story that’s been living in my head and heart to translate onto the page. Self-editing gives you a chance to make sure YOU have a clear vision for your story before you start opening up to feedback from an editor.
An editor’s job is to help you bring your vision to life. But if you aren’t even sure what you want your story to look like, there’s a risk the editor could guide you in a direction you don’t want your story to go. Taking the time to thoroughly self-edit ensures the story stays true to your original intent.
2. It Saves You Time and Money
Professional editors are not cheap, and picture books often require multiple rounds of both developmental and line editing. In addition, the best editors often have waiting lists! The more polished your story is before you send it to them, the less time and money you’ll need to spend waiting on multiple rounds of feedback.
Why Self-Editing A Picture Book Requires A Unique Approach
If you’re used to writing and/or editing novels or even short stories, working on a picture book manuscript can be a little disconcerting.
Granted, some things are the same:
- You always want your main characters to grow and change in some way from the beginning of the story to the end, for example.
- You always want to build up tension to the climax or turning point, and make sure the reader can root for the main character.
A good story is a good story in some regards!
But there are some critical ways picture books are VERY different!
1. Picture books are meant to be read aloud.
If you’ve ever had to read a story out loud to a child, you know that it’s half reading and half live performance! Character voices, fun sound effects, and other literary devices are important to a picture book because they make the read aloud more engaging.
In addition, when you have to read something out loud, shorter is better! If a sentence is too long, the reader runs out of breath. If the text on one page is too long, the child on the reader’s lap gets bored and tries to turn to the next page too soon. And if the whole book is too long — well, things could get dicey. Like any good speech, picture books need to be short, sweet and to-the-point.
2. Picture books are for a young audience.
Another reason to keep your picture book short is the age of your target audience. Picture book readers (or listeners) are all between the ages of 4-8. You have to keep up the pace, or they lose interest – FAST! In a novel you might need to slow down to build tension or set a certain mood. You might need to spend more time world building, or add scenes that give background information about a character. But with young kids, you’ve got to keep pace with those young imaginations — and increasingly short attention spans.
In addition, picture books, again because of their young audience, need to have a single, clear message. Novels often have multiple layers of meaning. There can be multiple story arcs for multiple characters, sub plots, flawed heroes and more! Self-editing a picture book manuscript often requires picture book writers to narrow their focus, rather than add depth.
3. Picture book text shares the stage with illustrations.
One of the BEST parts about writing a picture book is that you get to collaborate with an illustrator to tell the story. At the self-editing stage, this means purposefully leaving out information that can be better conveyed visually. In a novel, you might spend quite a lot of time describing the smoke, flames and sound of an explosion. In a picture book, all you have to write is, “BOOM!” The illustrator will take care of the rest!
This also means you should avoid over-describing or narrating things. In a novel, you might work on creating immersive descriptions of the setting so your reader feels as if they are there. Or you might craft a vivid physical description of a character so the reader can visualize them. But both the setting and characters in a picture book are shown via illustrations. So, you’ll actually be looking to CUT those types of things from a picture book manuscript, rather than expand on them.
So, if picture books are so different from other forms of fiction, how should you approach self-editing your picture book manuscript? Here are my top strategies:
Developmental Self-Editing Strategies
The first stage of the self-editing process for picture books is developmental editing. This is where you’ll evaluate the big picture aspects of your story like plot, conflict, and theme, and make sure they are working together to create a compelling narrative. During the developmental editing stage, you’re likely to make big changes! Don’t be intimidated! Making the big changes now will have a huge impact on the quality of your final product.
Here are my favorite strategies for doing a developmental self-edit of your picture book manuscript:
1. Read it out loud
As I mentioned above, picture books are meant to be read aloud by an adult to a child, so reading your manuscript out loud is a great starting point for self-editing. Go somewhere quiet, where you won’t be self-conscious, and pretend you're doing a reading with a group of kindergarten students. Note places where something sounds repetitive, confusing, or just plain weird. You don’t have to fix those issues at this point! Just highlight them so you can work on them later. Also note the overall length. How long does it take you to read? Would those imaginary kindergartners in front of you be getting antsy? Remember that with picture books, under 500 words is the goal.
2. Write a Tagline Hook
A good tagline hook, sometimes called a pitch or blurb, clearly conveys the conflict, stakes, and the theme of a story in just a few sentences. Writing one will force you to identify those elements in your story and make sure they are compelling enough to draw young readers in. (Check out this post for advice on how to craft a killer tagline hook.) If you find yourself struggling to write an engaging tagline, it could be because the conflict, stakes, and/or theme are weak or non-existent. Just because picture books are short, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have all the important elements of a traditional story. So start revising!
3. Plot it Out
If you’ve written a narrative picture book, plot out the major events on a picture book plot line to make sure your story is solid. We’ve all probably seen the traditional plot line or story arc.
But picture books have their own unique structure. The inciting incident happens much sooner and the climax happens much later. Why? Because our readers are ages 4-8, and the tension of rising action is what is most likely to keep their attention! Use this diagram to map out the events of your story and make sure they’ll keep the reader turning the pages.
4. Make a Storyboard or Dummy Book
A storyboard or dummy book is like a practice, DIY version of your picture book. You can make one by stapling together a few sheets of computer paper, or by creating a digital version in Canva or Google slides.
While you’ll have to create a true storyboard with your illustrator AFTER you’ve finished editing, creating one during editing can be a great way to identify and correct weaknesses.
Start by dividing your story into pages. Think about what illustrations will be needed with each line of text. Draw some rough sketches of the illustrations you imagine. (Don’t worry about your art skills! This is just to help you visualize the illustrations. You can even use clip art if you want.) As you create your dummy book, watch for the following things that make for really boring illustrations:
- Long conversations between two characters.
- Scenes that take place in the same room/setting over several spreads.
- Actions that aren’t exciting to illustrate – walking, talking, sitting, etc.
- Scenes where a character is thinking to themselves.
Revise…then get some distance.
After you’ve completed your developmental self-edits and made your revisions, take a few days to let the manuscript rest so you can come back to it with fresh eyes for…
Line Level Self-Editing Strategies
Once you’ve got the big pieces of your picture book puzzle in place, it’s time to focus on line level details. When you only have about 500 words to work with, every single word counts! Here are some line level self-editing strategies that will make each line shine.
1. Have someone else read it out loud to you.
I know, I know….again? But if you want the parents who buy your book to read it EVERY NIGHT before bed…you can listen to it one more time. Besides, this is where you really get to see how your story sounds. Reading it out loud yourself is good, but having someone who hasn’t seen it yet read it to you cold is the BEST way to notice problem spots. Choose an adult reader who hasn’t seen the manuscript yet and listen to them as they read. Take note of:
- Unintentional repetition – Do the first three sentences all start with “The?” Is the main character’s name repeated so much you feel like you’re watching Ferris Beuller? Beuller? Beuller?
- Sentence Length – Does the reader run out of breath trying to read a super long sentence? Do you find yourself struggling to follow along?
- Difficulty – Does the reader stumble over certain phrases or sentence structures? Do they have trouble pronouncing any words?
- Vibe – Watch them as they read! Do they seem bored? What parts make them smile?
2. Avoid large blocks of text.
After you’ve heard the story read aloud, scan the manuscript without actually reading the words and look for large paragraphs of 4 full lines or more. This could be an indication that you’re describing things in too much detail or narrating events that aren’t easily illustrated. At first glance, a completed picture book manuscript often looks more like a free verse poem or a screenplay than an essay or novel. Short sentences and scenes are more common than long paragraphs.
3. Consider the voice of your audience/main character
Take a careful look at each word of the story – particularly dialogue. Ask yourself if the average 5 or 6 year old would use that word. If not, reconsider it. Now, this doesn’t mean you can’t use ANY advanced vocabulary. But you do want the voice of the main character or narrator to be familiar and appealing to modern kids. If your story sounds like a Grimms fairytale…you’re out of touch.
4. Use literary devices – rhyme, onomatopoeia, alliteration, etc.
One of the things I love about writing picture books is the way the genre blends poetry with prose. Play with your words! Don’t be afraid to incorporate a little onomatopoeia (BANG!) or alliteration (Papa Pig pouted.) Remember that the story will be read aloud and use that to your advantage. Just remember that if you choose to use rhyme and meter in your picture book, you’ll need to do it REALLY WELL.
After line edits, you would typically move on to proofreading. But remember, this is just self-editing! You’re still going to send this manuscript to a professional editor, and you’re likely to make lots more changes, so don’t stress too much about spelling and punctuation at this stage. It’s perfectly fine to just use a basic editing software like Grammarly, etc.
How To Choose A Picture Book Editor
Once you’ve completed your self-editing, you’ve revised it to the very best of your ability, and you’ve run it through a basic editing software, you’re ready to send it off to a professional editor! And because picture books are such a unique genre, it’s important that you choose someone who specializes in children’s picture books.
Here are some things to be aware of:
- Many editors advertise that they edit “children’s books,” but really mean chapter books or middle grade literature. Make sure you choose someone who specifically works with illustrated picture books.
- Because picture books have low word counts, most picture book editors charge a flat rate, rather than by the word. Some charge a certain amount for each “round” of feedback, while others offer packages that include multiple passes on the same manuscript. Read their websites carefully, and don’t be afraid to ask questions.
- In addition, while many fiction editors will offer a free sample edit on the first few pages of a novel or longer manuscript, that’s not common with picture book editors. (When a manuscript is only 500 words to begin with, doing a free sample edit ends up being the whole thing!) Instead, look at their reviews and testimonials, and get recommendations from fellow authors before moving forward.
- In addition to clarifying pay structures, be sure to clarify whether the edit will be developmental, line-level, or a proofread. Some editors combine stages, which is fine, but you’ll want to know up front.
- Don’t hire an illustrator until all your edits are complete. I know it might seem like a good way to save time, but trust me! So much can change – even during line editing. And if you make changes to the manuscript AFTER illustrations are done, you could end up paying for new illustrations or costly revisions.
- Make sure your editor has a service agreement or contract that protects you both.
Taking the time to self-edit your picture book manuscript is an essential — and often overlooked — step in the writing and publishing process. It’s hard work! Sometimes it feels like you’re tearing your story apart, just to put it back together. But, just like a remodeling project on an outdated kitchen…things often need to get messy before they can get better. And if you do it right, self-editing will always leave your manuscript better than it was before.