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The Art of Self-Editing: Tips & Techniques for Picture Book Authors

Emma Walton Hamilton / Blog  / The Art of Self-Editing: Tips & Techniques for Picture Book Authors
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The Art of Self-Editing: Tips & Techniques for Picture Book Authors

Hello, dear writers and picture book enthusiasts! Today, I want to share some insights on a crucial part of the writing process: self-editing. Self-editing is an essential part of the revision process, and an important skill that can transform your manuscript from good to great. In my independent editing practice and also in the courses I teach at Stony brook and online, I often see writers struggling with this critical component… so I put together  some tips and techniques to help you polish your picture book manuscript before you send it off to an editor or agent.

1. Take a Break

After finishing your first draft, put it aside for a while. Whether it’s a few days or a couple of weeks, giving yourself some distance from your work will allow you to return to it with fresh eyes. You’ll be more likely to spot inconsistencies, plot holes, grammar and syntax errors and other issues that you might have missed initially.

2. Print it Out

Trust me on this! You will spot things in print that you could look at a dozen times on the screen and still miss. An extra tip here is to change the font from the one you’ve been working on. This way, when you print it out it really will look fresh to your eyes and you’ll be better able to spot errors and issues. Just remember to change the font back to Times or one of the other industry standard fonts before submission!

3. Read It Aloud

Picture books are designed to be read aloud to or with a child, so this step is vital. Reading your manuscript out loud will help you catch awkward phrasing, unnatural dialogue, and pacing issues. It will also give you a sense of the rhythm and flow of your story. And don’t just read it once – read it ten times! Better yet, have someone read it to you – and notice where they stumble. Does it stand up to multiple re-reads? If it’s a picture book, it must!

4. Focus on Word Economy

Every word in a picture book needs to earn its place. Picture books have limited word counts – ideally 500 words or less for fiction, a bit more for non-fiction – so it’s essential to make every word count. Look for opportunities to trim unnecessary words, phrases, or even whole sentences. Focus on redundancies (turned back, sat down, etc.), accidental repetition and not writing what the art will show. This most often shows up in adjectives and adverbs – so put every one of those on trial for its life!

5. Show, Don’t Tell

In picture books, illustrations should further the story, not mirror it. Instead of describing everything in detail, focus on the actions, behavior and dialogue of your characters. For instance, instead of saying, “Sophie was sad,” show her wiping away a tear or looking downcast. Trust that the illustrator will bring your words to life visually.

6. Pay Attention to Pacing

Pacing is crucial in picture books. You want to keep your young readers engaged from beginning to end. Ensure that your story moves at a steady pace, with a balance of action, dialogue, and description. Avoid lingering too long on one scene or rushing through important plot points. And envision where those all-important page turns will be! Are you compelling the reader to read on and find out what happens next?

7. Assess the Arc

If fiction or narrative non-fiction, does the story begin in medias res, jumping into the action, or problem, rather than starting with set-up, backstory or exposition? Does it travel through the solving of a problem or pursuit of a goal? Is the ending satisfying, inevitable, earned – and surprising, all at the same time? And if a concept book, is there a satisfying and engaging shape or structure to the text?

8. Seek Feedback

Before you consider your manuscript finished, seek feedback from others. Share it with trusted friends, family members, or fellow writers. Consider joining a critique group where you can exchange feedback with other authors. Better yet, reach out to an independent editor for a professional review. Fresh perspectives can help you identify areas for improvement that you might have overlooked.

9. Revise and Repeat

Editing is a recursive process. After making changes based on your self-editing and feedback from others, read through your manuscript again. Repeat the above process as many times as necessary until you feel confident that your story is as strong as it can be.

10. Know When to Let Go

Finally, recognize when it’s time to let go and move on to the next step. Perfection is an elusive goal, and at some point, you need to trust that your manuscript is ready for professional eyes. Remember, every manuscript will go through additional rounds of editing once it’s accepted by an agent or publisher. In the words of (I think) Voltaire, “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good.”

Self-editing is an art that takes practice, patience, and muscle. By incorporating these tips and techniques into your writing routine, you’ll be well on your way to crafting picture book manuscripts that shine.

Happy writing – and happy editing!

Emma Walton Hamilton
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