How reading picture books will make you a better writer

I write picture books. And I love doing so. But many of you probably know my day job is being a corporate editor. I turn jargon into conversational language and try to make complicated topics simple. While the two roles may not seem similar, there’s actually a lot of overlap. And reading picture books has helped me do both things better. Here’s how:

At first blush, writing a picture book and crafting a corporate memo might seem like completely different endeavors. But I do both, and the skills that help me write a good picture book also help me write business memos that get read.

Here are tips to consider whether your readers are 4 or 45.

Know your audience.

This might seem obvious. Picture books are for kids, and corporate memos are for employees. So crank out what they want, and you’re cool, right? Unfortunately, no. You have to consider important secondary audiences.

With picture books, you’re also writing for adults who buy the books and read them to kids. You have to create something they’ll pay $17.99 for and won’t mind reading over and over again.

With memos, you’re also writing for your company leaders and the subject-matter experts who requested the message.

In each case, you need to balance what the main audience hopes to see with what the secondary audience wants included. If you do it artfully, it becomes one seamless piece everyone enjoys.

Have an attention-grabbing title.

We all have information overload. A book must stand out from others at libraries or bookstores. A memo must be chosen from already-clogged inboxes.

A snappy title or headline that targets audience needs can help. Which would you most likely read? “Five 401(k) changes that could impact your retirement”? Or, “Third-party vendor releases annual retirement plan updates”?

That’s why the classic picture book “Curious George” isn’t called “A Monkey in the City with his Yellow-Hatted Friend.”

Keep it short.

Many picture books are 500 words or less. That’s a good goal for memos, too. Why? Neither audience has a long attention span. Parents want to finish the book and get their kids to bed. Employees want to get back to what they’re paid to do.

Keeping things short means focusing on the main message you want to leave with readers. And, it increases the chance they’ll remember it.

Pare away anything that isn’t essential. Cut the fluff and the self-congratulatory comments. Link to legal disclaimers and background material instead of keeping it in your main text. Dump the fancy words. Say it once, say it clearly and move on.

Choose your words wisely.

My in-progress picture book clocks in at 395 words. And my editor just said, “This feels a little long.” But I’m not worried. Once I’m done cutting, I won’t miss the words that used to be there. Some hints for writing tighter include:

  • Delete your go-to words. Common offenders are “that,” “so” “just” and “however.”
  • Turn passive voice into active voice. (“Your manager will hand out the forms.” Not, “The forms will be handed out by your manager.”)
  • Review every sentence and ask, “Does this really need to be here?” If it doesn’t, cut the whole thing. If it does, decide if there’s a shorter way to say it. There almost always is.

Make it visually appealing.

When people choose what to read, they naturally gravitate to materials that look accessible.

Depending on their target audience, picture books might have purple glitter on the cover or a close-up of a toothy shark mouth.

It’s hard to put glitter in a business memo, but you can make it look approachable. Use a readable font, like 12-point Arial. Break content into short paragraphs or a bulleted list so there’s some white space, not a dense block of words. Use black text on a white background for optimal readability. Make it look like it won’t take much time or effort to get through.

Give it the necessary attention.

To the uninitiated, picture books and memos look deceptively easy. People wonder, “How hard can that be to write?”

If you’re just slapping words on paper, it’s easy. But if you want to write something clear, informative and helpful, it’s quite hard. You won’t get it right the first time. Or the second.

So don’t dash off that memo or manuscript. Give it the attention it requires. Make sure the real news isn’t buried in the third paragraph. Make it a mini-masterpiece.

Seek appropriate feedback.

Most authors belong to critique groups where members share their work and learn from each other. Some of my best breakthroughs have come from these meetings.

In corporate life, people also review your work. They’re more likely to be executives, but, their input is still helpful. The trick is to understand their intent. They may add a paragraph only an MBA could comprehend. All is not lost. Try saying, “I like the idea you’re suggesting. Would it be all right if I phrased it this way?” Usually, it only takes a short conversation to come up with wording everyone can live with.

Try keeping your reviewers contained. The people in my critique group are writers I really respect. At work, I want reviewers who truly need to weigh in. Early in my career, I wrote a memo. A manager took it to a meeting. Afterward, he handed me 25 copies with each attendee’s notes on what should be changed. Try to avoid that situation if you can.

Learn from your peers.

Being self-sufficient is great, but don’t write in a vacuum. If you’re struggling with making something dry and complicated sound simple and interesting, read memos by the best corporate writers you know. Or ask them for ideas.

Before I sold my first book, I read everything Mem Fox and Kevin Henkes ever wrote. I read everything by Lisa Wheeler and Judith Viorst and Jill Esbaum and Kari Best. I read for enjoyment, but also to understand their structure and pacing and to soak up their lovely language. And I’m still reading. I have a perpetual stack of picture books on hold at my local library.

You want to sound like yourself, but the more you read writers you respect, the more you’ll see how you can apply their skills to your current projects.

Choose the right distribution method
Bookstores display titles they want noticed on tables or at the end of aisles. You can do something similar.

If your office is awash in email, try a paper memo. If the content relates to a specific place – say a stairwell that will be closed – forget the memo and put a sign on the doors instead. Or use sidewalk chalk and window paint for quick reminders.

Never give up.
Sometimes, things look hopeless. You get three rejections from publishers on one day, or the chief financial officer – who writes her emails in all caps – hates your memo.

Things seem grim. But don’t move to Australia.

Instead, write something else for a while. Take a walk. Think unkind things about book editors or accountants — temporarily. Then, look at your maligned copy from the other person’s viewpoint. How could you reflect his or her concerns and still meet your standards as a writer?

There’s never just one way to write something successfully.

Need ideas on how to revise? (A picture book, not a memo!)

I’m leading an online webinar about how to revise a picture book on Nov. 2. It’s called Rising from the Wreckage: How to Revise a Picture Book. You can watch it from the comfort of your own home. It’s $10 for SCBWI members and $20 for non-members. If you’re interested, visit The Southern Idaho/Nevada SCBWI site.

27 Comments:

  1. Great advice. Thanks, Pat. Can’t wait for your webinar.

  2. Wonderful tips, Pat! Thank you.

  3. Great post! Thank you!

  4. Fantastic advice, all around. Can’t wait for the webinar!

  5. Looking forward to 11-2-19 to learn more! thank you, Terri

  6. So many helpful points, but I especially love “There’s never just one way to write something successfully.” I will endeavor to keep this in mind, especially when I am considering critique advice.

  7. Pat, this is so wonderful! Thank you for sharing these insights!

  8. Great advice. Looking forward to the webinar.

  9. Great post, Pat! You are a revision queen . . . looking forward to your webinar!!

  10. That about sums it up! Great post. 🙂

  11. For several years, I wrote real estate ad copy, and it turned out to be excellent practice for writing picture books. Clear but brief. Honest but vivid.

  12. One of the best pieces of advice that I got when I started this endeavor of writing for children (thank you, Julie Rowan-Zoch!) was to read piles of picture books – AND keep a record of them. Now, 6 years later, I have a spreadsheet of 1000+ children’s books with some notes on genre, topic, structure, etc. and my own thoughts on each one. Now when I need a mentor text, or want to see how someone boiled down a complex topic, I can search the document and find valuable resources.

  13. Great post, Pat. Looking forward to your webinar at 2 p.m. CST on Nov. 2!

  14. Thank you, Pat. You’re such an inspiration…And I’m looking forward to your webinar.

  15. All great advice, but your example of getting notes on a memo from 25 people is making me think about the sweet spot for ms critiques… thank you!

  16. Such wonderful advice, Pat!!

  17. Sage advice, Pat. I’m signed up and excited for your revision webinar!!

  18. Pat! This post is an excellent analogy of comparing memo writing to picture book writing. Your words resonate with me: “There’s never just one way to write something successfully”.

    I look forward to the webinar in November to discover the best way to revise my manuscripts and make them “a mini masterpiece”.

  19. Thanks for the tips!

  20. Great tips from the BEST reviser I know. 🙂

  21. I like the practical revision tips that I can apply to my own stories.
    Thank you!

  22. Words of wisdom, Pat. Looking forward to your revision workshop in November.

  23. Thank you for the terrific advice. I’m signing up for the webinar now!!

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