It is a truth universally acknowledged -by picture book editors- that a picture book manuscript landing on an editor's desk is highly likely to be in want of a serious word-slashing.
There was a notorious world-slasher in my old picture book critique group. By day, he was a computer wizard...
By night, he would sharpen his sword/pen/tracking changes buttons and let rip...
He was brilliant. We’d put up a 600-word manuscript to be critiqued and with a swish and a slash (or a rattle of keyboard keys), it would come back at 400 words, just like that. And it was almost always the better for it (even if, temporarily, we weren't).
Of course not everyone is lucky enough to have an external word-slasher, so it is extremely useful to hone your own word-slashing skills.
Reducing the word count of your picture book manuscript for its own sake would be a very crude way of editing. But most picture book manuscripts are too long (ask any picture book editor). So, in conjunction with a really good understanding of the picture book form, losing (the RIGHT, or should that be WRONG?) words can help shape your manuscript into something really special. It’s often easier to slash someone else’s words, so I’ve put a chunk of my not-quite-final version of Don’t Panic, Annika! at the end of this post in case anyone wants to practise on mine, first. You can let rip on it and see how your edits compare with the final picture book.
Editing picture book manuscripts is different from editing other manuscripts. Being manuscripts, they do not have pictures in, and yet the form of the picture book means that the story is told through both the pictures and the text. This can make it trickier to edit, and, until you’re confident of what a great picture book manuscript (as opposed to the book itself) looks like, possibly less satisfying, too. A manuscript for a great novel will read as brilliantly as the novel itself. A manuscript for a great picture book will not. But that’s the point. It’s not MEANT to. It’s a picture book. It’s all about the book as a whole.
Here are a few tips for tightening up, reducing word count and producing the best picture book manuscript you can. If you have any other tips, please do share them in the comments section, below...
 Type out the text of a picture book you really like. Better still, type out the text of several picture books you like. (Make sure these are non-rhyming ones as rhyming picture books/really lyrical stories (such as Malachy Doyle’s When A Zeeder Met a Xyder) often use pictures in a slightly different way -more to enhance the feel of the story rather than telling parts of the story themselves). If possible, use recent books that have been published in the last ten years as the kind of picture book now being published has changed.)
Then look at that manuscript alongside the book and ask yourself: what would you have to put as an illustration note in order for an editor to understand the story? Add those necessary notes to the manuscript.
How does the manuscript look without the pictures? When a picture book is really good, since you read it as a whole (pictures and text together) you often don’t realise at first how much of it is told through the pictures. It can be very enlightening to see what can look like a disjointed manuscript for a great picture book. Remember, you’re not aiming for something that will flow beautifully without the aid of pictures (as it will look as a manuscript in your hands); you are looking for something that will flow beautifully as a picture book. This may mean, compared to a novel -told entirely through the text, your manuscript will look less impressive to your friends or even writers who usually only see picture books in their finished forms. Indeed, a more polished version of your picture book manuscript, where you are letting the pictures take on the job that some of your text was doing previously, will often appear less appealing to someone not used to a picture book manuscript than an earlier version where the -imagined- pictures aren't pulling their weight. However, picture book editors know how to imagine the pictures. It's their job.
Now look at your own manuscript. How does it compare, visually? Could your text be less dense? Could you let your pictures (even if they’re currently only in your head) do more of the work? Could you use interesting page turns (which, incidentally, can often tighten up your manuscript by letting the pictures work harder)?
 Capture your story in a single sentence and write it down. Keep referring back to this sentence when you read through your story. Is every line/word adding something important to your story (as summarised in your sentence)? If not, could you cut it? And is there anything else that could be shown through the pictures and not the text?
 Do the slasher challenge. Tell yourself this is an exercise and not an edit –and make sure you save a copy of the original...
If it helps to do this with an old manuscript of yours first before moving onto your current one, that’s fine. Write your word count on top of your story. Go through your manuscript (it often helps to do this on a hard copy) and be ruthless, cutting out everything that’s not necessary –even if it’s your favourite phrase/word. If you’re cutting out text so that the pictures can take on more of the story, then jot down as many illustrator notes as you want to –at this stage. See how many words you can remove without losing sight of the story. This doesn’t have to be your final copy, so don’t worry about over-slashing.
Try and leave at least a day before going back to this new (exercise) version –and preferably longer. Re-read it. Does it still make sense? You may be pleasantly surprised. Could you get used to it in this shorter form? I usually find that I prefer the shorter version, even when some of my previously favourite phrases have gone. Could you use your slashed version (even if you choose to add in a few extra words)? And can you now remove any of the illustration notes?
Even if you don’t choose to use your exercise version, when you re-read your original version, it may well seem overly long and it may be easier to tighten it up a little less drastically.
 Create the picture book experience (or as close as you can without the pictures). Print your manuscript and cut out the text and stick it on to an existing picture book in the place where you think it works (I use blue tack). Then video yourself reading it at the right pace and with the right page turns. Although it can be embarrassing to watch initially (it was with Don’t Panic, Annika! ), you needn’t show anyone else (I won’t), and it can be extremely useful for creating the experience of a picture book reading so you can do a final edit before sending it off.
 Show your manuscript to other writers, and preferably picture book writers. Those who aren’t used to picture book manuscripts will probably think you need to tell more in the text of the story (so it’s easier to read as a manuscript) and have fewer illustration notes. Those who are used to picture book manuscripts will often think you can leave more to the illustrations –and often without having to add in extra illustration notes. Remember, it is the job of the editor to imagine the story visually.
I don’t think it’s any coincidence that some of the very best and truest picture books are written by illustrator-authors –two of my all-time favourites are Not Now, Bernard by David McKee and Rosie’s Walk by Pat Hutchins (which, incidentally, started out as a normal-length text. Her editor read it and showed her a single line that he really liked -about the fox following her. That then became the whole story whilst never actually being mentioned in the text).
But I don’t love these books most for their illustrations. In fact, there are many books whose illustrations I prefer. I love them for their storytelling, which is so perfect a combination of words and pictures. Authors-who-don’t-illustrate can, of course, achieve this (see Pippa Goodheart's post on Arthur's Tractor), but I think it’s something that comes less naturally to some of us than to illustrator-authors. What we need is practise, practise, practise… and to know a good-looking picture book manuscript when we see one.
...And here’s your chance to practise on my text for Don’t Panic, Annika! first. The first few scenes are interspersed with comments as to why I edited it the way I did. The final two are set out in one block for anyone who wishes to try slashing mine before moving on to their own…
Scene from Spreads 1 and 2. ORIGINAL VERSION AND COMMENTS ON THE FINAL EDIT.
Annika was a panicker.
When things went wrong, she always panicked.
[I DON’T NEED ‘WHEN THINGS WENT WRONG’. AND BY ITALICISING ALWAYS, THE EMPHASIS IS CLEAR ENOUGH WITH FEWER WORDS.]
She panicked at the seaside when she dropped Moose in the rock pool.
“He’s fallen in! I can’t get him! He’s going to sink! I’ll never see him again!” she shouted.
[THE PICTURES CAN SHOW WHERE SHE IS SO I DON’T NEED AT THE SEASIDE (AND THE LOCATION FOR THAT SCENE ACTUALLY CHANGED). AND I’VE USED MORE THAN I NEED TO SHOW SHE’S A PANICKER. THE LAST TWO SENTENCES SHE UTTERS CAN GO]
“Try fishing him out with your net,” said her dad.
“I can’t! I can’t!” shouted Annika.
[BY PUTTING ‘I CAN’T!’ IN CAPITALS, I CAN LOSE THE SECOND ONE AND IT STILL FEELS LIKE SHE’S PANICKY]
“Don’t panic, Annika,” said her dad. “Just breathe in and out, in and out, really slowly, and you’ll feel better. Then you’ll be able to do it.”
[‘SAID DAD’, ‘SAID MUM’ (RATHER THAN ‘SAID HER DAD’… THROUGHOUT THE BOOK REDUCES WORD COUNT, AND THE READER FEELS MORE DRAWN INTO THE FAMILY. AND I CAN LOSE ‘THEN YOU’LL BE ABLE TO DO IT’.]
So Annika breathed in and out, in and out, really slowly, and sure enough, she did feel a bit better.
[I DON’T NEED ‘JUST’ AND SOMEONE SUGGESTED THAT ‘BREATHE IN AND OUT…’ SOUNDED TOO EDUCATIONAL/MEDICAL SO I CHANGED IT TO ‘TAKE A NICE DEEP BREATH’. AND IT’S CLEAR ENOUGH THAT SHE’S FEELING BETTER AS SHE’S ABLE TO DO WHAT SHE COULDN’T PREVIOUSLY DO]
And she fished Moose out of the rock pool.
“Brilliant!” said her dad.
The scene became tighter, with word count reduced by 40% (118 down to 72 words), leaving a much less cluttered page:
EXAMPLE 2: Spread 4 lost 33 words (from 111 down to 78) when I cut out the unnecessary words:
And she panicked when she couldn’t find Moose at bedtime.
[INCIDENTALLY, SOMETHING HERE THAT DIDN’T REDUCE WORD COUNT BUT IMPROVED HOW THE STORY READ WAS TO CHANGE ‘SHE PANICKED WHEN…’ WITH EACH PANICKY EXAMPLE IN SPREADS 1, 3 AND 4, TO ‘WHEN SHE X/Y/Z, … SHE PANICKED’ (SEE SPREADS FROM THE PUBLISHED BOOK, BELOW). PUTTING THE REPEATED WORDS AT THE END (SINCE IT’S REPEATED TWICE AFTER ITS FIRST USE) GIVES THE CHILD SOMETHING TO PREDICT SO HE OR SHE CAN JOIN IN.]
“He’s gone! He’s not there! He should be in the bed! I’ll never see him again!”
[I CAN LOSE TWO OF THESE AND STILL HAVE HER SEEMING PANICKY.]
“Try thinking where you might have left him,” said her mother.
“I can’t! I can’t!” shouted Annika. “He’s gone!”
“Don’t panic, Annika,” said her mum. “Just close your eyes and think about how nice it will be when you’ve found him.”
[DON’T NEED ‘ABOUT’]
So Annika closed her eyes and thought about how nice it would be falling asleep all snuggled up with Moose, and sure enough, she did feel a bit better. And then she remembered.
[‘THOUGHT ABOUT HOW NICE IT WOULD BE FALLING ASLEEP ALL SNUGGLED…’ COULD SIMPLY BE ‘THOUGHT ABOUT FALLING ASLEEP SNUGGLED…’
“He’s in the bathroom, brushing his teeth.”
[THE LOCATION WILL BE CLEAR FROM THE PICTURE, SO I CAN LEAVE OUT ‘HE’S IN THE BATHROOM’]
EXAMPLE 3: THE SCENE IN SPREADS 8 AND 9 WERE EDITED FROM 87 TO 68 WORDS. PERHAPS YOU CAN DO BETTER…
counted up to ten, nice and slowly. And she felt a bit better. And then she remembered. There were spare keys hanging up in the kitchen!
But the spare keys were too high as well.
Annika almost started to panic again,
but instead, she...
closed her eyes and thought about how nice it would be, flying kites, all together again.
And she felt a bit better.
She got her fishing net and stretched it up to the keys and hooked them into the net.
[MY CHANGES: DON’T NEED ‘UP’ IN ‘COUNTED TO TEN’/ WE’LL SEE SHE’S FEELING BETTER SO AGAIN, REMOVE. DON’T NEED ‘THEN’ IN ‘AND SHE REMEMBERED’/ DON’T NEED ‘HANGING UP’ IN THE KITCHEN –WE’LL SEE THAT IN THE PICTURE/ CHANGED TO ‘ANNIKA NEARLY PANICKED’ AS IT’S LESS CLUNKY/ CHANGED TO: ‘CLOSED HER EYES AND THOUGHT ABOUT FLYING KITES WITH HER MUM AND BROTHER’. WE KNOW IT WOULD BE NICE AND THE PICTURE WILL SHOW THIS, AND THAT THEY’RE ALL TOGETHER AGAIN. IT’S ALSO LESS CLUNKY. AND WE KNOW SHE’S FEELING BETTER SO WE CAN REMOVE THAT, TOO./ CHANGED LAST LINE TO: ‘THEN SHE STRETCHED UP AND HOOKED THE KEYS INTO HER FISHING NET’. THE PICTURES WILL SHOW THAT HER FISHING NET IS THERE.]
EXAMPLE 4: THE SCENE FROM Spread 10. HERE, THE WORD COUNT IS HALVED, FROM 74 TO 38.
Outside, a crowd was gathering. “What shall we do?” shouted the milkman.
“We can’t get in! The windows are all shut,” shouted Annika’s mother.
“We’ll have to phone for help!” shouted the neighbour.
“STOP!” called a voice from inside the house. It was Annika.
“Don’t panic, Annika!” shouted everyone.
“I’m not panicking,” said Annika, calmly.
“But you’re inside and we’re outside, and you can’t get out and we can’t get in!” shouted her mum.
AND HERE’S THE FINAL EDIT:
Back in the hall, Annika heard a terrible racket coming from outside.
“DON’T PANIC, ANNIKA!” shouted everyone.
“I’m not panicking,” said Annika.
“BUT YOU CAN’T GET OUT AND WE CAN’T GET IN!” shouted her mum.
“STOP!” shouted Annika.
[THE OUTSIDE CROWD SCENE IN THE ORIGINAL WAS NOT TOLD FROM ANNIKA’S POINT OF VIEW AND IT’S HER STORY. SECOND, THE PICTURES CAN SHOW THE CHAOTIC SCENE FROM OUTSIDE. AND WE DON’T NEED THE ADVERB, CALMLY. WE WILL SEE THE CONTRAST BETWEEN ANNIKA AND THE OTHERS IN THE PICTURES. INCIDENTALLY, I DID NOT PUT ANNIKA SHOUTING ‘STOP!’ IN THE FINAL VERSION AT FIRST. MY CHOICE WAS TO HAVE HER SAY IT (TO MAKE IT COMPLETELY CLEAR THAT SHE WAS NOT PANICKING). THE PUBLISHER WANTED IT BECAUSE OF THE WAY IT WOULD WORK WITH A SPECIFIC PICTURE.]
Happy slashing… (and please do leave your own top tips for editing your picture book manuscripts in the comments, below). Thank you.
Juliet Clare Bell writes (mainly) picture books. Don't Panic, Annika! (illustrated by Jennifer E. Morris, Piccadilly Press in the UK; other publishers overseas; 2011)was shortlisted for the Crystal Kite 2012 and will soon be a CBeebies Bedtime Story. The Kite Princess (illustrated by Laura-Kate Chapman and read by Imelda Staunton; Barefoot Books) is out in September, 2012. www.julietclarebell.com