Paring Down Words:
What Writers Can Learn from Children's Picture Book Texts

by Linda Lowery

“Let the wild rumpus start!”

That’s Max, protagonist in Where the Wild Things Are. Did those words conjure up an immediate image for you? Had you never seen the book, would you have had a different, equally rollicking image triggered by that sentence?

Probably yes.

The simplicity of picture books texts can teach us a lot about economy of words. Five words on one page, and Maurice Sendak has captured us. Had he expounded on details, the power of that wonderful, simple prose would start interfering with our imaginations, rather than firing them up.

If you’ve never written text for a picture book, you might assume we children’s writers make our sentences short and our word count spare because the pictures will explain what we write. Nope. If the story doesn’t stand on its own, the illustrations can’t carry the book, and probably will never be published. We’ve trained our brains to simplify, simplify, simplify. We follow the sound advice of Strunk and White in The Elements of Style: “Omit needless words.”

Easier said than done, right?

In any genre, when we’ve finished the bloodletting of a first draft, we all need to switch gears and cut back. Editing that second or third (or fifty-fifth) draft of our work can be daunting. How can we make sure every word moves our story forward, with the superfluous stuff (yes, sometimes our “darlings”) slashed and burned? How do we omit not only needless words but needless paragraphs and chapters as well?

For me, it’s taken tons of practice, and still is never easy. I’m reworking a psychological thriller right now that needs lots of paring down. Those fabulous, chilling, vital details and descriptions in my first draft aren’t nearly as vital and fabulous as I thought. They’re bogging down the action. Thankfully, I’ve discovered my experience in the world of picture books has taught me some healthy lessons in word economy and emotional detachment.

Before we kids’ book writers turn a story over to an illustrator, we let go. It’s out of our control. It’s now in the realm of the artist’s imagination. I think reworking a novel is basically the same. Our readers become the “illustrators.” They get to insert their imaginations into the world we’ve created. We need to give them breathing space to do just that.

Thinking like a children’s picture book writer might help train your brain to weed out words, sentences, even whole chapters without spilling too much more blood. Here’s a quick primer:

WHAT EXACTLY IS A PICTURE BOOK? Like all genres, it’s essentially a good story with a beginning, middle and end, told in 100 to 1,000 words, with content that appeals to kids ages 3-7. Final text runs from 24 to 36 pages. (There are exceptions, of course—12-page books or 60-page books ranging from 0 to 1500 words—but we’ll work with majority rules here.)

What’s different about picture books is this: the text shares an equal storytelling role with the illustrations. With few exceptions, however, picture book creators begin with words, not pictures. It’s only when the text is finished and approved by an editor that a writer/illustrator starts on the pictures, or an illustrator is assigned the project.

“With me,” Sendak wrote, “everything begins with writing. No pictures at all —you just shut the Polaroid off.” He never spent less than two years on text, even though his books averaged 380 words each. Simplicity is hard, no?

By the way, in this article I’m talking about modern picture books written in the past 50 years. The old fairy tales are long-winded and make for great bedtime stories; the kids will be asleep before you get to page 3.

WORDS, NO PICTURES. Pick up a few award-winning picture books at the library. Have someone read them to you. Slowly. Don’t look at the pictures. Just listen. Notice how every word counts. Notice what images your mind conjures up.

In Hello, Lighthouse, 2019 Caldecott Medal winner Sophie Blackall begins this way:

On the highest rock of a tiny island
At the edge of the world stands a lighthouse.
It is built to last forever.

Got the picture? Your own picture? The writing has left lots of space for imagining.

PURPOSEFUL PAGE TURNS. Ask your friend to reread the book you liked best. Notice each page turn. Maybe the turn ends a scene. Maybe it gives us a breather from the action. Maybe it’s a cliffhanger. (I learned about page turns from an editor who sat me down in her New York office and made me listen to the flow of my text until I agreed I needed to cut three sentences. After an hour or so, I politely resisted the urge to hurl a book at her head.)

WORDS AND PICTURES. Now read the book while looking at the pictures. Notice how the illustrator has envisioned images different from your own. Has she added visual irony? Has he made the lighthouse striped instead of the bright white you pictured? Notice that the writer allowed space for the illustrator’s imagination to run unleashed. The partnership has made for a terrific book.

Now transfer that partnership to the editing process on your current work. We’ve created a story that draws our readers into the world of our characters. We’ve set scenes, provided details, painted the pictures we want our readers to see. That’s great.

Now when we begin editing, our job—besides omitting all the Strunk and White needless words—is to let go. We want to allow the readers some space to insert themselves into our story, to fill in some blanks with their own illustrations, to recognize their own demons, feel their own outrage, or relive their own sweet memories. If we dwell on unnecessary details, we risk losing our audience. Questions I ask myself at this point include: Has it taken a paragraph to write what I could say in one sentence? Have I bogged the reader down with too many details?

You might find it useful to step back and approach your story from a fresh perspective. Take the book you’re working on right now and get it down to 300 words and 32 pages. What??? I know it sounds like an insane task, but this is just practice for focusing on the core of your story and preparing to cut out whatever isn’t moving the action forward.

Sendak did it in 10 sentences and 338 words. You can manage 10 sentences. Then create a picture book dummy (a rough mock-up). Read it aloud. Have you left space for the reader’s imagination? Check out each page turn. In your “real” manuscript, does that page translate to a cliffhanger chapter ending? An important breather from non-stop action? Is it necessary, or have you focused one sentence on something that’s unessential?

Your tiny book could serve as a compass if you lose your way during the editing process. It might remind you to leave some space and let your reader do a bit of the illustrating themselves. Our readers are intelligent and creative and love to be part the story experience. So, lighten up and…

Let the wild rumpus start!

Linda Lowery is a New York Times bestselling author of 65 fiction and non-fiction books for young readers published by Random House, Houghton Mifflin, Peachtree, Lerner, and Scholastic. Her books have been honored on “Best Books of the Year” lists from the American Library Association, Bank Street College, Publishers Weekly, The New York Times, and the International Society of School Librarians. She’s teaching a “Dream Prompts” workshop for the Great Smokies Writing Program this summer and meanwhile is busy omitting unnecessary words and chapters from her first psychological thriller for adults.