Here’s something kind of funny. Back in the early stages of this process, I was brainstorming possible angles for writing a picture book about trucks or truckers. Not to really do it, but in order to share examples of how I approach things.
A couple of days ago, I was Ubering home from the library, and my driver mentioned trucking. He used to be a long-distance trucker! Even though I don’t really plan to write about this topic, it seemed like destiny. I asked him all sorts of questions about how long-haul truckers live on the road. I learned several interesting things that were tiny pieces of a possible story.
I thought this was a great example of how a topic might stay on the back burner of your mind for weeks, months, or many years, and you might learn little tidbits of things that eventually all tie together into a cohesive book.
Step 12: Cut It: The Long and Winding Read
This series is about nonfiction picture books. There are longer nonfiction books for middle-grade (4th-6th grade) readers, and those books are illustrated or photo-illustrated. But I’m not talking about those books in this series. I’m really talking about picture books for up to 2nd or 3rd grade at the oldest.
Here’s a truth about picture books and the current publishing industry: shorter is more in demand and is more salable. I love short picture books, so I’m happy about it. Other readers and writers long for the days when lush, detailed stories were the norm in picture books. No matter which camp you fall into, the facts are the facts. So if your goal is to write a picture book that has a better chance of selling to a publisher and then to readers, you need to pay close attention to length.
Aim for no more than 800 words, and that’s if you’re writing a picture book for school-age kids. If your book is meant for toddlers and preschoolers, it will need to weigh in at just a couple hundred words, probably. I’m talking about the main text here. If you’re using layered text (see Step 6: Structure It), you might be adding sidebars or additional text on each spread that is “optional reading.” For right now, just focus on the main text: the text that every person who reads/hears the book will read.
Here are the word counts of the main text for a few of my nonfiction picture books—note that all of these have a core audience of K-2 (kindergarten through 2nd graders).
||Main Text Word Count (approx.)
||Sidebars/ Layered Text (approx.)
||Backmatter? (besides glossary/ suggested reading)
||Author’s note, when spring starts
|Meet My Family
||Language chart, animal range map
|If You Were the Moon
|A Leaf Can Be…
||Brief paragraph about each role
So, what if you check your word count and discover your main text is 1500 words—or longer? You cut. You cut a lot. In fact, you might need to rethink your approach and go back to one of the earlier steps, because chances are you’ve tried to cover too much information for this young age range. Maybe you took too broad or encyclopedic of an approach. Or maybe you had a good angle but just went into too much detail. You might want to try a whole different structure or approach. Or you might want to think about separating out the bare bones, crucial info that can be your main text, and think of an approach that incorporates some of the remaining text into sidebars or backmatter. Please know that trying multiple different approaches to figure out the one that “fits” into the picture book format.
Or maybe your manuscript is too long, but not ridiculously long. In that case, ask yourself, what is my single, specific idea for this book? Then read through your text, asking yourself after every single paragraph, “Is this information necessary to the specific idea of this book?” If not, cut it. Ruthlessly.
You can also think about what information can be shown through images and illustrations (more on this in an upcoming step). As with fiction picture books, these projects are true collaborations! The art does not just support the text. It works with the text, working equally to convey information to your reader.
In If You Were the Moon, for instance, my main text line of “Challenge the ocean to a tug of war” does not clearly tell the reader everything that spread conveys. But the art, showing the moon and the swell of the ocean, helps get the idea of gravity and tides across. And the sidebar text spells it out even more clearly.
Art copyright Jaime Kim, from If You Were the Moon, by Laura Purdie Salas
Sometimes we forget to leave room for the illustrations or photos, but they can do some of the heavy lifting. So leave some of those big boxes for them to carry.
If your book is a narrative—a biography or a story of an event—you might need to cut some events out. Telling a nonfiction narrative is as much about what you leave out as what you choose to keep in. Remember that you can never tell all the truth of any event or topic. So even if you’re telling the story of a true event, you still have to figure out your specific angle—what approach YOU’re taking to telling that story. What YOUR key idea is that will help guide what you cut and what you keep.
Your goal at this point isn’t a final polish. But you should be getting your manuscript into a structure now that makes it easy to hit your word count limit.
DO THIS NOW:
1) Check the word count of your manuscript.
2) Is it too long? Usually, the answer will be yes. Don’t feel bad.
3) Determine whether you need to try some new structures/approaches.
4) Brainstorm some ways you might use layered text or backmatter to lighten up your main text.
5) Identify spots where you can cut text and allow images, charts, or diagrams to convey information.
6) Write a new draft. Or six.