Josh Funk's Guide to Writing Picture Books
How do you get an entire story crammed into 549 words or less? The answer is to make sure that …
Every Word Counts
I’m not talking about your ‘word count’ being less than or equal to 549 words (that’s right, I’m starting the trend of raising the new maximum word count of picture books to 549 … as of right now). I’m saying you should try to convey every action, every character interaction in as few words as possible. If you can say something in 5 words instead of 10, say it in 5. If you have a phrase or sentence that doesn’t move the story along or add anything to the scene, remove it.
I’m not saying your picture book manuscripts should be bullet lists of things that happen – they should be creative, clever, and lyrical – not a PowerPoint presentation. Sometimes the ‘Every Word Counts’ rule can go too far. I’ve heard people say not to use adverbs, and even adjectives should be used sparingly. I vehemently disagree. If an adverb or adjective improves your story, then use it. Just make sure that adverb or adjective is necessary. Many times they can be removed with no detrement to the overall product. But sometimes, they’re just lovely enough to keep in.
Let’s look at an example of how to make every word count:
As sweat dripped slowly down Luke’s face, he stood with his blue light saber in his right hand. The evil Darth Vader had to be stopped before he could do even more harm to the galaxy.
You might rewrite those 36 words as these 11:
Luke stood ready to fight. Darth Vader had to be stopped!
But what about the sweat on Luke’s face? The color of his light saber? How do we know which hand he fights with? How do we know Darth Vader is evil? Or what he plans to do if he’s not stopped?
Let’s start with Darth Vader. If he had to be stopped, we can assume the readers know he’s the bad guy (it’s likely they already knew this from previous pages). And we can let the readers guess at what might happen if he isn’t stopped. It isn’t necessary to tell them, especially since it isn’t happening – at least not at this moment in the story. And even more harm to the galaxy is such a vague statement that the reader would still have to imagine what his future plans are anyway. That phrase adds nothing. So cut it.
Regarding Luke, the answer is that the illustrator is your partner.