Step-by-Step
How to Write a Children's Book!

image from 'Bible Readings for the Home Circle' (caption added)

You might think you know how to write a children's book...

...but unless you have a lot of professional fiction-writing experience, chances are there's a lot of stuff you don't know!

(Skip to the steps.)

How can I say that without even knowing you?

Well, because I see a lot of picture book manuscripts that aren't ready for publication, both as the owner of this site and someone who helps aspiring authors with their writing.

I can't give you all the tools for becoming a professional children's book author - it's a hyper-competitive field, and success requires not just talent, vision and skill, but luck! What I can do is try to make sure you don't get ahead of yourself.

Are you ready for some harsh truths? Are you ready to confront just how challenging it is to write a decent picture book or book for older children?

Good. Now, don't skip any of these essential steps...

How to Write a Children's Book
(whether you have before, or
whether you haven't)
A Step-by-Step Process

Preparing to write a children's book...



Know your grammar.

  • Seriously. It matters. I don't care if you write as well as your friends write. You're reaching for a much higher standard, right? So don't start with stories until you're in command of your prose.

Make sure you've read a lot of books like the one you want to write.

  • written for the same age readers
  • written with a similar vocabulary
  • written recently (styles change)

There is no such thing as a good writer who isn't a good and avid reader!

You've read the books? Okay, now re-read them.

  • The first time you read something, you're experiencing it as a reader. You're experiencing it as something new. Not until repeat readings can you experience a story as a writer. Not until repeat readings can you appreciate how a story is built.

Speaking of how a story is built, have you studied story structure?

  • Guess what? You can spend a whole lifetime reading and still not know how an author structures a story. You were too busy enjoying all those words. Well, it turns out they were following a whole bunch of rules. You'll want to make sure you know those rules...and know how to use them.

Tired of me lecturing you? Here are some books on the subject:


Plotting your children's book...

Plan your story.

  • The best way to end up with a poorly plotted story is to simply start writing. Story structure, remember? It's a lot easier to structure a story in advance rather than after you've written it.


Focus on your main character.

  • Among the most common mistakes I see are from authors focused like a laser on a particular sequence of events. They think that's what makes a story.
  • Nuh-uh. Plot can't be separated from character. Think of a children's story as one character's adventure. 
  • Make your character about as old as - or a little older - than your intended audience. Generally speaking, kids don't want to read stories about adults - or about children younger than them (whom they think of as "babies").


Limit yourself to your main character's viewpoint.

  • Let's say Jennie is your main character. If something is going on that Jennie can't know about, it really doesn't belong in your story!

Make things difficult - every step of the way.

Think of a story as the depiction of the most challenging experience a character has ever had until this point in their life. That means:

  • The obstacles your character encounters have to be pretty daunting (in an age-appropriate way).
  • The obstacles should be overcome by your character - not by your character's parents or teachers!


Keep it fresh.

What's the point of learning how to write a children's book if your subject matter has been done before, in almost precisely the way you're doing it? Make sure you put a new spin on previously explored subjects. (And almost every subject has been previously explored.)

Ready to start writing? Rules of thumb...


Don't rhyme.

I have to mention this before we go any further...

  • If, thanks to Dr. Seuss, you think how to write a children's book is in verse, stop thinking that. Most picture books today are written without rhyme.

Verse is infinitely harder to properly execute than prose. Please don't try to learn verse at the same time you're learning how to write a children's book. It took Seuss 18 months to write The Cat in the Hat!

If you aren't a master of meter you will embarrass yourself.

Start with a great opening.

  • Your job as a writer is to draw your readers in immediately. That starts with your first sentence. Write sentences that make readers want to keep reading! Great openings present compelling characters in compelling circumstances...quickly.

Be consistent and true to your main character's viewpoint.

What I said about viewpoint in plotting applies to your prose as well. Either tell your entire story in the first person (your main character saying, "I did this"), or tell it in the third person from your main character's point of view.

For example, if Jennie is still your main character:

  • Jennie saw Richard pull out his squirt gun.

Rather than

  • Richard decided to pull out his squirt gun.

It's not Richard's story, so we don't get to hear what's going on in his mind. (Unless he tells Jennie.)


Track your main character's emotion.

  • If you read my page on story structure (I sent you there in the previous section!) you know that a story has highs and lows, and that the drama and stakes should increase through the duration of the narrative. Make sure your main character reflects that! Don't have him/her yawning through the good stuff. Her/his emotional state should reflect the urgency of what's going on.
  • Similarly, don't have your character get over-excited when circumstances don't justify it. You need to leave room for emotion to increase.


"Show, don't tell."

  • This is an admonition given to all writers of all kinds of fiction. Broadly speaking, it means convey information naturally. It means don't be "expository."

(If either of these terms I've wrapped in quotation marks are unfamiliar to you, please do further research. You can start with a discussion on our site here.)


Nail the ending.

As you should know by now (if you followed that structure link), the main section of your story (the middle, that is, Act II) concludes with Crisis and Climax. Endings are not as long as middles! Once the dramatic part of your story has finished, you want your book to finish quickly.

Good endings:

  • Give us a sense that, after the high drama of the story, things have stabilized.
  • Give us a sense that the story had importance, i.e. even if you don't put it into words, a reader should be able to express how they think the main character's life will go differently as a result of the events in the story. (More thoughts on endings.)

Uh, that was your first draft. You're not done.

How to re-write a children's book

You're proud of yourself, and you should be. You wrote a children's book! You're eager to show it to family, friends, maybe even a publisher. Don't. No real writer shows anyone a draft until they've made it as good as they can. There's a reason we call it a first draft.

Here's what you still have to do...


Reread it.

  • You're gonna catch stuff. Lots of stuff.
  • Your goal in reading and rereading your own work is always to try to look at your work as a stranger reading it for the first time would. Start practicing that skill. Read every word; don't skim.


Reread it again.

  • You're still gonna catch stuff.


Check for all the stuff we've already discussed.

  • Inevitably, you're going to find things like falling out of viewpoint, or finding that your character's emotion seems inappropriate to the situation. Fix it. Notice any obstacles that aren't challenging enough? Fix those too.

Conciseness. Or as Shakespeare put it, Brevity is the soul of wit.

  • No book - especially a children's picture book - should be any longer than it needs to be. I hereby forbid you to waste precious words on Once upon a time... In fact, it's time to find shorter ways to say just about every sentence in your story! You don't want your writing to appear lazy.


Conciseness isn't just about word choice.

It's also about

  • Plotting that doesn't really matter
  • Characters who aren't really relevant
  • Details that aren't really important

Cut 'em!


Make sure your main character is likeable.

  • A character's choices define him or her. If another character is crying, and your character doesn't do anything about it, that might make your readers like your character less...or not at all.
  • You don't want that. Examine every interaction in the story and ask yourself if your character deals with it in a way that'll keep readers on his or her side. When your character isn't nice, there should be a good reason!


Make sure your characters behave with consistency and believability.

  • For instance, a character with stagefright shouldn't decide that putting on a show is a great way to make needed money.

Make sure your choices are believable.

  • Yes, you're writing fiction, but the directions you turn your story in have to seem believable - in the context of the story. A character might consult a wizard in a story set in an enchanted forest. It's probably not a good idea in a story about football.


Check for clarity.

Reading like a stranger - not the author:

  • Make sure you can make sense of every element of your story.
  • Make sure there aren't two ways to interpret a sentence - only one.


Stop.

  • Walk away from your story for at least three days. Do other things. Think about other things. After your time away...

Repeat.

  • Do all these things again with fresh eyes.


Finally, give your story a title.

  • Not the title you were thinking when you initially decided to write your children's book, but rather the title that fits your story as it is now. And make sure it's a title that will make your intended audience want to read your story. (More on titles.)

Showing your work to others

When you've made all the fixes and improvements you can think to do, you're ready to show people your story...if you want.

Remember, friends and family are going to tell you how wonderful it is! After all...

  • They like/love you.
  • They aren't professional writers/readers either!

The only valuable feedback is critical and constructive and comes from people who have made at least some study of fiction from the writer's standpoint.

People who have some sense of how to write a children's book.

The other stuff is fun to hear, but if you're serious about your writing, don't take unserious feedback seriously.

You can seek out professional feedback, or you can seek out a writers' group - filled with other writers looking to improve (and perhaps market) their work too.

Feedback from multiple people can be confusing! Inevitably there will be disagreements. One person thinks a plot choice was great; another makes a case for why it wasn't believable.

It will be up to you to chart your own path through this thicket. Not all feedback will be helpful. Sometimes it will reflect a misunderstanding of what you're trying to achieve with your story.

(Though if a reader got a misimpression, it is worth examining whether that may have been the result of imprecise writing on your part.)

Once you've settled on what feedback seems helpful, you need to dive into your story again (while remembering everything we've already discussed).


Done?

Good. Now, here's the hard part:

Forget about your story.

Hide it where you won't find it for years. Why? Because I promise you that after you've continued to work on the craft of writing, this story will embarrass you.

Writing is hard, and the goal is to get better. But by reading this, you just took the first step!


Want to write another? Check out how to write a children's book (for a very specific audience).

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