Friday, August 23rd, 2019

Compression: Getting Down to the Essence

The second word in Jane Yolen’s list of ‘ten words every picture book author must know’ is Compression.  It’s a good word, and can be defined as “the reduction of the volume or mass of something by applying pressure” (an apt description of the editing process!)  Among the words I might choose to describe the same concept are distillation, reduction, concentration, and essence. I like these words because they are all cooking terms, and bring to mind the act of enriching something (like a sauce) by reducing it… thereby ending up with something better.

With picture books, one must, by necessity, tell one’s story in 1000 words or less, and within 32 pages. While some may view this as a constraint, I actually see it as an opportunity – an invitation to be creative.  I can be paralyzed by freedom… if there are no boundaries or guidelines, if anything goes, then where do I begin? But if the parameters are clearly defined, then I can get to work, and creativity can flourish.

Here’s what this means in practical terms: how best can you say what you mean, using the fewest, yet most evocative, words?

In the editing section of my “Just Write for Kids” course, we explore a number of techniques for streamlining text.  Here are a few ways to trim the excess fat (sticking with those cooking terms!):

  • Watch out for “cheesy modifiers” – such as “really,” “very,” or “just.”  Perhaps you don’t even need a modifier. Instead of describing someone as “very tall,” try “towering.” Strong adjectives don’t need modifying.
  • Eliminate unnecessary adjectives and adverbs – Be mindful of what the illustrations will show, and focus more on verbs. Also watch out for adverbs that are being used to prop up weak verbs. Find a better verb!
  • “Show” through dialogue and behavior rather than “telling” through description.
  • Be careful of repetition.
  • Jump into the action and wrap it up quickly – Don’t take up time with exposition or hammering the point home. Jump straight into the action at the beginning of the book, and let the reader draw the final conclusions rather than hammering any ‘morals of the story’ home at the end.

The bottom line with picture books these days is: less is more. Become a master of creative economy. Mo Willems is the poster child for this skill.  I wonder if he cooks?


6 Responses to “Compression: Getting Down to the Essence”
  1. Diane says:

    Ahhhh now that is what I have to be mindful of and that is to try and jump into the action first. Another that I am not too good at… great with discription but action is what I need to concentrate on along with show not tell… Thankyou again Emma for hammering it home to me. I am hoping the Q&A Seminar coming up will also help. Congratulations by the way on the Grammy win for Audio book of your Collection of Poems, Songs and Lullabies Book that you and your mother collaberated on. Well deserved I thought.

  2. Diane says:

    My English prof. used to put it: “Don’t get verbal diahrea!”
    Sorry for the visual.

  3. Beth says:

    Great food for thought, Emma! (I promise I didn’t use the word “food” with pun aforethought.)

    This post feels like a challenge — can I reduce, compress, distill my current project back into a picture book that will grab a child’s attention, or does it really need to expand into a chapter book to fulfill its purpose?

  4. joanna says:

    “Mo Willems is the poster child for this skill. I wonder if he cooks?”

    I reckon he does 🙂

    I liked the tip about checking for adverbs that are propping up weak verbs as I hadn’t thought of how an adverb might be misused int his way.

  5. Beth says:

    I’m trying to combine thoughts about writing with the picture books I’m talking about for the picture book reading challenge I’m involved in. Your thoughtful posts are helping me there, as I work out for myself what Jane Yolen’s words and your interpretations of those words can mean for my own writing.

    I hope you’ll take a look at my latest blog post — in it, I’ve talked about lyricism, and illustrated that concept with my review of Simeon’s Gift. At the end of the review, I’ve told about a use for the CD which I would not have thought of on my own — I think you’ll be touched by it.

    Now to go back to pondering “compression”.

  6. Patricia says:

    Good information. I know this information, but when it gets down to writing the bones of my story, it does slip in. Thank you for another good discussion. 🙂

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