Want to Improve Your Writing?

After getting my MFA in Creative Writing for adults, I thought I knew how to write. Turns out, I didn’t know how to write stories with pictures.

But for the past two years, I’ve been trying. Correction, the first year I flailed about in the dark. The second year, I bought a flashlight to shine on the guideposts.


Picture books live by their own rules. Some of what I learned in my MFA program applied, but there was a banana boat load of things I didn’t know. So I read some of the classic kid lit writing texts, took online classes and added a separate goal-setting kid lit writing group to my schedule.

I now know just how difficult it is to write a satisfying story in 750 words or less. And today’s market is dipping below 500. Exhausted parents—at least those with young children—want speedy bedtime reading. 

What’s a clueless writer for adults to do? I joined online children’s book writing communities, started sharing the pain and lunacy with others, including those with far more experience.

For example, Susanna Leonard Hill makes writers work. After entering two of Susanna’s rigorous competitions, ones with 100 and 250 word limits, a 500-word allowance felt like I’d just been led to a smorgasbord of chocolate ice cream, chocolate cake, chocolate pudding,  70% cacao chocolate bars, chocolate eclairs, chocolate donuts…get the picture?


Five hundred words for a full character and plot arc. Archetypes. Heroic journeys. Descriptive language. Humor. Fresh metaphors. Wordplay. Rhythm and rhyme (especially internal). Compression, compression, compression. Surprise and magic. Oh, and remember to visualize what can be presented more effectively in the illustrations, and leave that out of the text.

Decide whether it’s important to include specific instructions in the illustrator’s notes. But don’t be too specific unless it’s essential to the story. You don’t want to be considered a control freak and cramp the illustrator’s style. One more thing: lay out the text, and plan the page turns. Maximize the tension at those points. Got it. OK.

In the midst of all this learning, the Dogpatchers came sniffing round the house looking all hang dog:


“Did ya forget about us?”

So I revised a fiction story for adults this past February for their critique, a story that I’ll be using to apply for the Squaw Valley Writers Workshop this summer. 

And guess what?

After exercising my slicing and dicing powers for picture books, I found all kinds of words that didn’t need to be lounging around inside my bloated, five thousand word story. I took that flabby thing and shook it out the door. Let the wind blow that chaff away. Now, what I’ve got is more finely tuned and ready for the judges.

Want to be a better writer?

Learn how to write a picture book—one that kids and adults will want to read.






41 thoughts on “Want to Improve Your Writing?

  1. Carrie Rubin says:

    Wow, I have trouble keeping my books under 90,000 words. I can’t imagine under 500. But you raise a good point: writing a children’s book would help us learn how to whittle things down to what’s important. Would help with writing pitches and blurbs, too.

  2. Lady Fancifull says:

    Oh come on Jilanne you KNOW I don’t do brief!

    I do like children’s books though, both those that were from my own yoof, and some present day writers. Those 100, 200 and 500 word exercises sound wonderfully refining

  3. Laurel Leigh says:

    It’s been incredibly interesting watching you purposefully expand your repertoire to include children’s books. You’re a killer adult fiction writer, and I love some of the risky, gritty stories you turn out, so it’s doubly interesting to see you then channel that same storytelling skill to stuff that kids can and will want to read. It would be interesting to line up your stories chronologically from pre-Liam to now and look at the evolution of style and focus, although having just read “Horse Sense,” an adult lit piece, I’d say you haven’t left the grit or the adults behind, for which, as your reader, I’m appreciative.

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      Oh, Laurel. You are too generous with your praise. Thank you!

      I think gritty and risky turns into quirky and humorous for my kids’ stories. I’m still trying to refine endings. They seem to come from a place where inspiration meets desperation.

      • Laurel Leigh says:

        That translation (gritty/quirky etc.) makes a lot of sense. So then inspiration meets desperation continues to work for your adult stories but what does that turn into in the children’s version? Hoo boy, good luck with that! Maybe a question posed by the adventure that as it’s unfolded has also offered the little reader encouragement to think about potential answers? I would think that while there is an educational outcome desired in lots of cases, your versions might be that they promote kids to be thoughtful and to ask questions without knowing all the answers?

        • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

          With the exception of nonfiction, I never seek to educate when I write a kid’s book. Unless we’re talking social and emotional intelligence. I truly love the wordplay and surprise part, so I aim for that. One of these days, I’ll get there. And “yes” is the answer to your last question. 😀 None of us have any answers, so we should just keep asking the thoughtful questions.

          • Laurel Leigh says:

            It is interesting to think about the various aspects that will hit the unique audience of kids and their parents/educators. I think social and emotional intelligence is a very worthy outcome and one that the adult readers can also appreciate and be entertained by. I’m certainly looking forward to seeing your next batch of stories.

  4. FictionFan says:

    You pretty much lost me at the smorgasbord – I felt it necessary to spend a little time there! I’ve always found it hard to cut out extraneous stuff – it was always a problem for me to keep to a limit in essays etc. But I was wondering – have you sent this post to Ms Tartt?

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      Well now, after you wipe your chin, I’ll answer—is all of the evidence of your gluttony gone? Good. The answer: no, I haven’t. I think she’s chosen her path and is dead set on maintaining it.

  5. cricketmuse says:

    I’m having to trim my children’s stories down more and more to meet criteria. Some days I wonder if simply writing “Once upon a time…the end” would suffice.

  6. alundeberg says:


    What a great strategy to refine one’s work. It reminds me of what Steven King said in his book On Writing: that we should reduce our manuscripts by a third. Excess words and details be gone!

    How sad though that children’s books need to be shorter because parents don’t have time to read to their kids. That’s a sad commentary on modern life.

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      Yes, it’s true. And as a parent, I can attest to those nights when my son asked if we could read specific books, and I thought to myself “That one will take a half and hour, this one will take ten minutes.” I did, however, make up for it by reading lots of picture books during the day, no matter their length. But apparently, many parents only read to their children at bedtime, hence the increased demand for shorter books. So yes, it is sad. So many wonderful older picture books that have lots of words.

  7. Ste J says:

    Shaun Tan does wonderful books for the whole family. I think picture books seem deceptively simple but looking at what is needed in depth, there is a lot more to it. Taking a different approach to your work is always refreshing and just goes to show we can always learn from other techniques.

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      Please hold the applause, the throwing of flowers, the bravos! (well at least the big ones. It’s OK to utter a few mini bravos, and I thank you)—until there’s something tangible with a publisher’s imprint. I will not rest until that day. And then I’ll take a five-minute break before I get back at it. Stay tuned….


  8. Sheila says:

    That’s so true – it’s amazing how much whittling can be done to any story. And once you get used to a certain word limit, there’s a lot of freedom in a few hundred extra words. I’ve heard that if you’re having trouble with a synopsis, start with the elevator pitch and work your way up to a page (instead of trying to whittle the whole book down to one page). If that kind of an activity can be linked to chocolate in any way, I’m all for it.

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      Everything can be linked to chocolate. 😀 I think that what you’re saying can also be linked to clarity. If you can write something in an elevator pitch, you have distilled the thing down to its essence. And once you have the essence, you have clarity.

  9. The Picture Book Review says:

    I’m always amazed and impressed by how much work it takes to write a picture book. I actually feel guilty when I’ve devoured a picture book with my son in five minutes flat. Sometimes I think I write extra-long reviews as a way to atone for how short a time a picture book can be read. 🙂

    Congratulations on all your hard work!

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      Thank you! That’s why I’m trying to write one of those picture books that kids want to read again and again and again, one that ends up on the home bookshelf and becomes a hand-me-down. 😀

  10. Celine Jeanjean says:

    That’s really interesting – and something I’ll have to try. I’ve always heard the advice that a great way to master writing is to master the art of the short story, but this is taking short story to the extreme!
    Although I have the opposite problem of a lot of writers: my stories start out as very very bare and then I have to grow them and add flesh to their bones. The novel I’m working on right now started off as 50k starveling and is finally developed enough to be a healthy story. I guess the trick is learning to write fully developed stories succinctly and crisply.

    The boot camp you mention reminds me of this weekly writing challenge called the Speakeasy over at Yeah Write which is for flash fiction of 750 words or less. A lot longer than what you were working with mind you (and it’s geared for adults) but still quite a bit shorter than what most people are used to working with. You’ve inspired me to sign up once the A to Z challenge is over!

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      Oh, I haven’t visited Yeah Write. I’ve done the 100 Word Challenge for Grown Ups: https://jfb57.wordpress.com/100-word-challenge-for-grown-ups/

      Julia also has a 100 Word Challenge for students from around the world, where entire classrooms of children write to a prompt: https://100wc.net/

      You’re doing the A to Z challenge?! I don’t have enough brainpower to post that often. 😀 Tale a breather when you make it out the other side! Thanks for stopping by!

      • Celine Jeanjean says:

        Oh I’ll check out the 100 Word Challenge for Grown Ups – I don’t think I’m up to writing for children yet (seems far harder to me than writing for adults)
        Yes, I’m doing A to Z again but this year I’ve planned my posts and written half of them already – I think that’s the key to not having a meltdown haflway through! 😉

  11. Letizia says:

    I love the phrase “I took that flabby thing and shook it out the door” haha! I was just working on a translation this morning with someone (we were translating a text from Portuguese to English) and we were saying that the English language becomes more beautiful the simpler it gets. Shake that flab indeed!

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      Thanks, Letizia! Translation is a quite another animal, indeed. You have my undying respect for being able to do that with the sensitivity that’s required. You are so right, making it simple, removing the excess that’s not required is part of the art.

  12. Kate Johnston says:

    I have a few story ideas for picture books, but when I tried getting into them I had such trouble. I haven’t given up, but I put them aside far more often than I put aside my other fiction. I totally agree with you that they are more difficult to write than adult fiction. But, getting just one sentence spot on is amazingly motivating to me, probably as that one sentence is practically 1/8 of the story!

  13. Bronwyn says:

    Thank you! I need all the inspiration and advice I can get on this subject. For the first time ever, I’m learning how to compress my Wordy McWordiness self into an improved model. I love the challenge. I don’t want to change completely, but I would like to keep my readers engaged and alert more than I do.

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