Wednesday, August 21st, 2019

Icing Vs. Cake (or, Verse Vs. Prose)

I’m going to be very frank, since this is a subject that comes up over and over again in my editing practice. Language is a fundamental part of children’s literature. Word play, rhythm, alliteration, parallelism, refrain  – being playful, imaginative, creative with language is at the core of style when it comes to children’s books.  But let’s face it – Dr. Seuss is an anomaly.

cookbookThere are very few people who can write verse as brilliantly as he did, although it is great fun to attempt to do so.  I confess to having written a few stories in “tribute to Dr. Seuss mode” myself.  I also confess to having had a number of those stories rejected by publishers. Verse is widely considered to be difficult to do well, and for this reason, it can be a tough sell. When in doubt, go for prose – but if you must write in verse, then remember this: story first, verse second.

Challenge yourself to write a version of the story in prose, so that you can be sure the story is leading, and that the verse is germane to the story and not just filler for the sake of a rhyme.  In my editing practice, I frequently see stories written in verse taking all kinds of detours because the writer is trapped by the rhythm or rhyme.  They lose momentum, and their central dramatic core.  Drafting a prose version, whether before or after you’ve written the verse version, forces you to review the key issues—character, plot, setting, theme- in order to ensure that you haven’t neglected story structure for the sake of rhyme.  Verse should be the icing, not the cake itself.

Finally, never force the meter, or assume the reader will hit the right emphasis on the right part of the word if it is out of sync with how we normally say something.  Make sure that the rising and falling tone matches, and that the rhyme is true.


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5 Responses to “Icing Vs. Cake (or, Verse Vs. Prose)”
  1. Thank you! This is very good advice, well stated, and it is definitely something I needed to hear. I’ve been working (sporadically) on a verse picturebook text, and when I hold it up to the clear light of this post, I realize that it has many holes in it. Thanks for sending me back to the drawing board (well, computer screen) on this one!

    Perhaps in your course you could take this a little further, and talk about the difference between writing poetry, and trying to write a story in verse? I find that the discipline of writing poetry, specifically lyrics, is a very good exercise for expressing one’s thoughts in a very structured format, keeping the emphasis on the correct syllables (this can be very glaringly awkward in a song, if the unaccented syllable of a word falls on an accented note), being concise, rhyming without resorting to odd grammatical contructions, etc. This, however, is *very* different from trying to tell a story to a child while maintaining rhyme and rhythm.

  2. Renata says:

    My name is Renata, I live in Brazil. I teach biology to high school students (15 to 18 years). I love my job but my dream is to teach children. For that I am doing a course in Visual Arts. I soon have my little students and, of course, we read his books. My son loves to read their booklets.
    About what you wrote, I think it must be very difficult to write a text in the form of poetry! I loved your comment: “Dr. Seuss is an anomaly”! How does he do it?
    Hugs and much success!

  3. Amy Isgro says:

    This was very interestin. I don’t write verse myself, not being a natural at the rhyming part. or the meter for that matter! I much rather write prose , go straight to the matter. But if I were to try my hand at verse, must I do rhyming words? What about the meter part? Amy Isgro

  4. Hi, Emma — just a note. I tried to click on the survey link but all I got was the title and a blank screen. Should I have been more patient and waited? Does it take a while to load? Is the survey over?

  5. admin says:

    Thank you for taking the time to do the survey! The link has been fixed or you can click on this link to access the survey. – posted by web team

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