Writing Tips

  • Transitions: Use words like “meanwhile” or “just as” or “later” to move characters from one point in time and space to another in the story.
  • Dialogue should hint at events in the plot by showing your character’s reaction to his situation. By showing your character’s reaction to his situation, you give details to the reader about who this character is.
  • Does your story pass the “preachy” test? Are you trying to teach a lesson? Does your story have a kidlike theme and does it have a kidlike resolution, or is it yours?
  • Holiday stories can be hard to sell because the publisher only has a 3 month window during which to sell the book each year. But, editors are always looking for a good holiday book if it’s unique and fresh.
  • Change the verb of a cliché for fresh writing.
    • Example: The afternoon was bright with sun (cliché).
    • The afternoon was sun bright.
  • Use unusual, eye catching and unexpected verbs.
    • Examples: The storm stained the black sky.
    • Bluebells like paint drops, splashed across the meadow.
  • Each page of a picture book carries a certain amount of “weight” (importance in the story)—and sometimes just one sentence can carry the same weight as two paragraphs on a different page.
  • Too many pronouns in a sentence can confuse the reader…then it’s best to use the character’s name.
  • Sometimes writers confuse the verb lay: A difficult day LAY ahead—not lie.


Use “active” not “passive” writing. Passive writing tells rather than shows. When writing actively, verbs are your most valuable tool. Pick verbs that describe exactly how the character is acting; alternate words for sat carry different emotional meanings (perched, slouched, squat). The subject and verb contain the important info in each sentence so keep those elements close together toward the front of the sentence for greatest impact.

An example of passive writing:

In the field was a mouse. He was sitting in the tall grass. There was a cat across the road. The cat smelled the mouse, and began to walk to the field. There was a noise in the grass. The cat and the mouse looked at each other.

Each sentence falls like a lead weight on the page. The writing doesn’t come to life. Sentences that start with “there was,” “there is,” and “there are” are telling and most always passive.

Another problem with the example is that there is no main character. The viewpoint of both the cat and the mouse are shown. In one sentence—There was a noise in the grass—the reader isn’t sure who is hearing the sound. If you write the story from one point of view it forces you to see
the events through the main character’s eyes, thus leading to active writing.

Now, here is the same scenario but with active writing:

The mouse lolled in the field, nibbling on a seed. He sighed as the rustling grass caressed his ears. Suddenly, he leapt, to his feet as a rumbling purr floated through the breeze. The mouse stared straight into two yellow eyes and a wide, cat grin.

The reader will assume that the cat smelled the mouse and stalked his prey across the field.

More examples of active vs. passive writing

Passive—The shoelaces were tied by Megan.

Active—Megan tied her laces

Passive—A new record in the long jump had just been set by Rita.

Active—Rita had just set a new record in the long jump!

Passive—As the wind increased, flames could be seen licking the top of the ridge. The

volunteer fire department needed to be alerted right away.

Active—As the wind increased, Tony saw flames licking the top of the ridge. He needed to

alert the volunteer fire department right away.

Passive—The leaves were raked into piles by Louis and Hank.

Active—Louis and Hank raked the leaves.

Although the first sentence is acceptable it isn’t a strong one. If you make Louis and Hank the subjects and put the rakes directly in their hands, you’ll create a more active and vivid picture for readers.


  • When writing a picture book think 14-15 evenly spaced illustrative opportunities.
  • Editors prefer stories with a real plot—character driven plots. They want to fall in love with the main character. In this competitive market, editors do not want “quiet” books. They want edgy, humorous books.
  • Avoid stories with a message or moral.
  • All editors say they hate inanimate objects that come to life.
  • Some editors like talking animal stories others don’t.
  • Folktales were in demand in the 80’s and 90’s but not so much today.
  • Multicultural stories are in big demand…stories about children from other cultures.
  • Use the best words in the best order for the best story (advice from Jennifer Wingertzahn, editor at Clarion Books).

When writing humor:

1. Exaggerate—ie. Write he jumped 100 times

2. Opposites—tiny elephant or giant humming bird

3. Unusual places—fishing in the middle of the street, spinach in a candy shop

4. Use funny words—succotash, waddled

5. Use puns—use of one word that has more than one meaning ie. Waiting/wading, ate/eight

6. Make up words—hippopota-mustard

Punctuating Dialogue

1. When the tag line comes first, use a comma before the quote.

Example: Kelly asked, “What’s rustling in the bushes?”

2. When the tag line comes after the quote, end it with a period.

Example: “Do you think it’s a wolf?” she asked with a shiver.

3. When a tag line interrupts one-sentence of dialogue, set it off with comas.

Example: “It can’t be a wolf,” Mom said, “because the ranger said there are none.”

4. When a tag line falls between two (2) complete sentences of dialogue, end it with a period. Begin the new quoted sentence with a capital letter.

Example: “Okay, it’s not a wolf,” she whispered. “Then what is it?”

5. Use a comma to end the quotation when the tag line comes last, unless the quotation is a question or an exclamation.

Examples: “It’s just the wind!” Mom said.

“Who’s driving us home?” she asked.