Josh Funk's Guide to Writing Picture Books

To be or not to be, that was the existential question written by an ancient playwright whose name I can’t remember. But Shakespeare did not write picture books. While questioning existence is not a topic generally covered in the medium of picture books, I personally find that describing existence is done far too often. Writing what something is (or was, as most picture books are written in the past tense) should be avoided as much as Shakespeare avoided Hugh Fennyman. How do you avoid the word was?


Show Don’t Tell


Why, you ask? Because the illustrations show what that something is (or was). This combines both the Every Word Counts and The Illustrator Is Your Partner lessons. There’s no reason to tell the readers what is already shown in the illustrations. It’s simply a redundant waste of words.


What if you need to express a character’s feelings? How can I avoid saying “Hamlet was sad” or “Leonardo DiCaprio is hungry”? The answer is the much mentioned writing paradigm: Show Don’t Tell.


Simply, say “Hamlet cried.” This shows he is sad. If you want to go into more detail, say “Tears slipped down Hamlet’s cheeks.” Perhaps Leo can “rub his empty stomach” or he can “stare at the delicious looking sushi in the water tank.”


I recommend you do a quick search for the word was (and wereisare, etc) and see how many you can remove/replace/reword from your manuscript without drastically increasing your word count. As was is such a passive word, I’m willing to bet that your revision is going to be much more lively and impassioned.


The overuse of the word was and learning how to show instead of tell begins the journey toward learning how to now write with active emotion.


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