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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 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 builds upon 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 extraneously superflous verbiage.


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


Simply, say “Ophelia cried.” This shows she is sad. If you want to go into more detail, say “Tears slipped down Ophelia's cheeks.” Perhaps Alex can “rub their empty stomach” or they can “stare at the delicious looking sushi in the water tank.”


I recommend you do a quick search for the words was, wereisare, and any other form of the verb to be in your manuscript and see how many you can remove/replace/reword 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.


Now that you've gotten rid of all the was's and learned how to show instead of tell, we can keep the ball rolling by learning how to write with active emotion.


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