“It’s okay to borrow from literature,” an L.A. Times editor told me and a room full of journalists at a recent workshop on word craft. Well, the reverse is also true. I attended that workshop for my job as a reporter but in the subsequent days have found myself utilizing Steve Padilla’s tips as I revise picture book manuscripts. Details like length and vocabulary level may differ in my writing spheres, but the principles of good writing cut across formats. So I thought I’d share some of Steve’s best tips here that you can make use of in your children’s writing, or any other kind of writing.
1. Focus on verbs Print your story out and circle all the verbs. Look at each one and decide if it’s a) active, and b) specific/vivid. My high school yearbook adviser drilled active vs. passive into me as a teenager, so I rarely use forms of “to be,” but I’ve noticed in revisions that many of my verbs are still boring/generic.
An example:The man was eaten by a lion. (passive)
A lion ate the man. (active)
A lion devoured the man in two gulps. (active, vivid, specific)
2. End sentences with gusto. The end of a sentence is what rings in someone’s ear and supports the next sentence. Don’t write “Jessica leapt into her mother’s lap,” if it doesn’t lead to something happening in her mother’s lap.
3. Let your meaning control the words. Get used to asking yourself what the story’s really about. Syntax, grammar and word choice are important, but they need to be in service of the idea.
This relates to that old writing adage, “kill your darlings.” A word or phrase may sound great but if it doesn’t connect to the bigger meaning, you’ve thrown a hurdle into the story. Our readers aren’t all track stars. Don’t make them jump hurdles.
Bonus: Steve also recommended reading your story out loud when editing. That should be pretty obvious if you’re writing picture books, but if you aren’t in the habit, start now!
What’s the best revision tip you’ve heard?