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Monday, December 17, 2012

Manuscript First Aid – Notes from a contest judge

by Marilyn Hilton

In the last few years, I've served as a judge in the children’s categories of many writing contests. I'd like to share some of the recurring problems I've noticed, in hopes that if you're beginning to write for children—or thinking about it—this list might help as you write and revise your manuscripts.
Missing or unclear story arc. Just as with stories for adults, stories for kids—picture books included—need to have a story arc, driven by characters’ desires, motivations, and challenges. What do your characters want and why, and what obstacles do they face reaching their goals? Then, what do they learn? What do they have at the end that they didn't expect?

Adult characters or narrator/storyteller. Make the story a child’s story instead of an adult's. If Grandma, Grandpa, Mom, Dad, the teacher, or any other adult who, by their nature, will protect, defend, help, teach, preach to, save, or sacrifice for the child, keep that character out of the story as much as possible. As adult writers, getting the grownups out of the way in children's literature is one of the hardest things to do.

Backstory. Readers don’t need to know most backstory, and it’s not interesting to them. If you have to tell some backstory, weave it into the story where it’s needed most, instead of at the beginning.

Main character as observer. A main character who gets into the deepest pit of trouble and then finds a way out of it is far more interesting than the character who learns a lesson from watching his or her friend get into the deepest pit of trouble.

Unclear direction and unimportant details. Get to the point of the story quickly, and then stay on track. Avoid details that don't matter.

Mechanical and style errors. Proofread carefully for punctuation, style, and grammar, because they do matter. Hire a professional proofreader if you don’t feel confident about editing yourself.

Incomplete synopsis. A synopsis summarizes the story from beginning to middle to end. A synopsis isn't the same as back-cover copy or a book review.

Perfect characters with no problems. Childhood is as challenging, frustrating, and disappointing as adulthood can be, but we adults often forget that when we look back nostalgically and write children’s literature. Adult problems are really just kid problems in grownup clothes, and the boardroom is simply the playground in mahogany. Kids have intense problems with friendships, power, autonomy, loss, jealousy, insecurity, loneliness, anger, worry. You don't have to have kids or grandkids, or work with kids, to write well for that audience. Remember that child inside you who couldn't stay up all night, whose best friend left you for a new best friend, who didn't have enough money for that thing you wanted more than anything else, whose mom was scary-sick, whose cat disappeared, who got separated from the group in the woods in the middle of the night, who dreamed of one day doing whatever you wanted, who was teased to tears by someone you admired and trusted.

Issues unique to picture books.
- Picture books don’t have to rhyme. In fact, don’t write a picture book in rhyme unless the verse works seamlessly and with surprise. If you had to force the verse into fitting the meter or rhyme scheme, try writing the story in prose.
-  Picture book characters—just like characters in books for older readers—should be fully fleshed, allowing readers to know and identify with characters by their personalities as well as their appearance.
-  Because text and art work together in a picture book to tell the story, remove any text that can be shown by the art.

One last piece of advice. If you're not a member of Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), join! It's the premier organization for authors, illustrators, agents, and editors of children's literature. You’ll meet lots of people who love children’s literature as much as you do.

What in this list resonates with you? What would you add?


  1. Excellent list of things to review before entering a contest or even before considering your manuscript finished. I give you a blue ribbon.

  2. So great to know what judges look for when they critique! In the end, it all boils down to the elements of great writing! Thanks Marilyn. :)

    1. Now, if I can only remember them, too :)

  3. Thanks for sharing your wisdom, Marilyn!

  4. I must print this out so I can have it handy! Such good advice! Great post, Marilyn.

  5. Wonderful pointers, Marilyn! I'm going to print it out, too! My creative writing class is seeing this soon! :) I will be reviewing it myself, too!

    1. Wow, Julie. Well, I hope they find it helpful!