Sunday, August 19, 2012

Cutting Words in a Picture Book Manuscript

Chop chop! Word counts for picture books are tight. Every word has to count. Before you even think of submitting a manuscript to an agent or publisher, be sure every word makes the cut.
  • Think about what the illustrations will show. Do you really need to say that your character is sitting by a stream? (Don't be afraid to use an illustration note if you need to, but only use them if absolutely necessary!)
  • Can you say with one word (better) something that you've said in two... or three... or four?
  • Contractions! Going though your manuscript and changing they are to they're and I am to I'm, etc.,  can cut quite a few words. Of course, you don't have to contract everything contractable. Use your judgement on what sounds best in your story. Remember to watch for it is. It's it's not its!
  • Check your descriptions. Can they be tightened?
  • Are there sentences that can be combined? 
  • Can words that end in -ed be changed to -ing, omitting the pronoun?
  • Don't be afraid to go even further. Can you rid the story of any scenes, characters or dialogue? If it isn't moving the story forward get rid of it!
  • Try Twitter. It's really great for helping make one aware of cuttable words. When you're trying to fit a thought into so few characters you can really see what needs to go!

    Here are some common word offenders to be on the lookout for:
as/as they

And of course: adjectives and adverbs!

My biggest offender? The horrible! The horrifying! Just. Oh how that word seems to make it into every single one of my manuscripts.

What are your biggest offenders? I'll add them to the list!

For more on cutting your picture book manuscript read STOP! Cut Picture Book Mss by 1/3 at Darcy Pattison's blog,  and Six Steps to Make Your Children's Story Sparkle by Laura Backes.

Of course, it can be hard to see what can be changed in our own work after we've looked at it for so long. If you've done your best to cut and still have a manuscript that's too long, ask a critique partner to look at it with an eye towards cutting!


  1. I've recently been given some great feedback on a manuscript - and the bigggest weakness was too many words eg: Cut out time, description and action. This really did help me fine tune it.

    'Suddenly' may be my biggest offender.

  2. All excellent advice! Off the top of my head I'd say yo've covered it pretty well... the only other thing I can think of right now is filter words - "she felt", "he knew" "it smelled like" etc.

  3. Definitely! All of those things Ramona and Susanna. It's funny how we can't always see the extra words ourselves. And suddenly is a big time offender. Added it to the list!

  4. QUITE!

    Plus, what the heck is that? As if I use it in everyday language. Just no. But for some reason, that sucker sneaks in like I'm trying to sound all Kate Middleton or something.

  5. Prepositional chains, "in the middle of" "on top of the" "over in the blah blah."

  6. "However!" That's mine. For that matter any sub conj. I chalk it up to rookie mistakes, yet (see) I can't get away from 'em.

  7. Carter! That is too funny! Sometimes I write things in a way I would never say them and I wonder where the heck it came from. Brains are mysterious! And those darn prepositional chains! I'm not sure if it's always rookie mistakes, Pam. It's just rough word flow that we need to be aware of when revising! Knowing your common offenders definitely helps weed out unnecessary words. I think however is a pretty common one!

  8. However and just are two of my biggest offenders!

    Extremely helpful post, Heather. Thanks. I love this sentence: "It's it's not its!" SO true. And something most people just don't get!

    There, see? I used that offensive word "just" in that sentence above!

  9. Just is just so natural! Ugh! And its/it's is one of those things I had to ingrain in my brain when I started writing. It's easy to muck it up, especially when you're tired. And what writer isn't tired?

  10. Thanks for the great tips! "Just" is a big one for me too. So is "really". It's just really bad.

  11. Good advice, Heather. Writing picture book manuscripts is so hard. My writing workshop leader, Patti Gauch, warned us to "edit with a feather", not pruning shears. In other words, don't cut the heart out of your story. If those gumballs add delight to the story, maybe there's some way to keep them. Even if the manuscript is a few words longer, it might be worth it.