Line edit, developmental edit, copy edit, proofread … there are enough editorial services to make a new author’s head spin. Which can be a real problem for an author who is planning to self-publish a book! And when it comes to publishing a children’s picture book, it can get even more confusing. Why? Because an editor really plays many roles in the children’s book publishing process.
Yes, editors finesse language. But it is also the editor’s job to know the target market, help with book design, and act as an art director. The truth is, not all children’s book editors are created equal. And an author who is self-publishing a children’s picture book may not find an editor who will fill all those roles. But it is still important to understand: what does a children’s book editor do? So let’s take a look!
Here are the steps required for editing a children’s picture book:
- Editorial assessment
- Developmental edit
- Beyond editorial services
Every author wants to believe their book is perfect. But the hard truth is, almost no book is. Even the most seasoned authors need help. The first editorial service an author should seek is an editorial assessment. The editorial assessment is a high-level overview of a book, and as such, it is the first step in editing a book. At its heart, an editorial assessment is an author’s opportunity to find problems with a book. These may be issues such as:
- plot holes
- scenes that appear out of order
- unnecessary story moments
- lack of character emotion (this is usually an issue of show versus tell)
- point of view
- whether there is a strong opening line
A book editor should look at all of these things, regardless of book genre. But a children’s book editor, and in particular a picture book editor, should be looking at word count, age appropriateness, rhyme and meter, and page count.Are you writing a children's picture book? A successful outcome could hinge on finding a special kind of editor. https://bit.ly/2WWXaTS Click To Tweet
Picture book word count
The sweet spot on picture book word count is between 500 and 700 words, but the hard and fast rule is not to exceed 1,000 words. Why? Because kids have short attention spans! Take a look at the pictures below from Puss in Boots and A Muppet’s Christmas Carol. As a parent, which looks more appealing to read? The one with less text!
Is a children’s book written at the right vocabulary level? Is the content appropriate for the reader’s age range?
Rhyme and meter
If a picture book is a rhyming story, an editorial assessment should help an author find what rhyme and meter best fits the story. Want more information on writing a rhyming children’s book? Check out professional children’s book editor Brooke Vitale’s article, How to Write in Rhyme.
Page count and page layout
Children’s picture books are traditionally 32 pages. At this stage a picture book editor should be looking at how the text spreads across those pages!
Once the editorial assessment is complete, a children’s book editor should return all of their notes to the author. This may be in the form of a marked-up manuscript, or even better, as an editorial letter. An editorial letter breaks down all the big-picture problems. It offers solutions to the problems and tells an author what needs to be worked on. And for some children’s book editors, an editorial letter may include suggested book pagination. Revising a manuscript with page turns in mind allows an author to see where there is too much text on a page, so breaking down those page turns early is always a good idea.
Beyond just finding problems with a story, it is the job of a book editor to know the market. In the case of a children’s book editor, to know what picture books have sold well, and to be familiar with popular book themes and book trends. As part of the editorial letter, an editor should tell an author if there is a market for the book.
For more information on what goes into an editorial assessment, check out children’s book editor Brooke Vitale’s article: Editorial Assessment.
Once an author has reviewed the editorial letter and any notes on the book manuscript, it is time for revising to begin. At this stage, the editor may step away, or they may be an integral part of revising, with lots of back and forth on how to fix problems. This tends to be more a decision on the part of an author than on the editor, though a good book editor should always be willing to expand on their ideas and help problem-solve.
Once the revisions are made, that’s when the developmental edit starts. For some authors, the most confusing editorial service is the developmental edit. That’s because it goes by so many names: structural edit, line edit, substantive edit. But at its core, they all mean the same thing. The developmental edit is the moment when a children’s book editor starts finessing the text of a book.
A book editor—regardless of book genre—is looking for several things at this stage:
- Clarity of language
- Sentence structure
- Character development
- Show versus tell
- Word choice
- Use of dialogue tags
All of these will be viewed by a children’s book editor as well. But a picture book editor is also looking for word count per page, balance between text and illustrations, and story pacing. A professional children’s book editor should also help to craft art notes.
Word count per page
This isn’t just about overall word count now. It’s about how much is going on a page. Too much text on a page makes a book hard to read, so it is a book editor’s job to trim this down and make sure it reads well.
Is the text telling us what the art is showing?
This is a big one for picture books. Because illustrations are such an integral part of a children’s book, an editor should be looking for places where the text is redundant with the art. A reader doesn’t need to READ that a character’s hat is green if they can see it on the page. In a picture book, it’s better to let the illustrations speak for themselves. Take a look at this example from The Day the Crayons Came Home by Drew Daywalt. Here, the illustrations give us something the text DOESN’T, rather than just illustrating what the text says.
This is a also big one, and while it’s not one that every children’s book editor does, it’s one that every children’s book editor SHOULD do.
So what does story pacing mean? It means that an editor should offer final suggestions for what text and art goes on page 3. And page 4 and page 5. And so on.
Why does this matter? Because sometimes in breaking a book down this way, an editor will find that too much text has to go on one page, and that means it’s necessary to cut text. A professional children’s book editor will also keep an eye on the forward momentum of the book to ensure that page breaks happen at moments of suspense or changes of scene. If the layout isn’t working that way, it’s time to make an adjustment to the earlier pages.
As a self-published author, it’s not enough to just hand a manuscript to a children’s book illustrator. That manuscript needs art notes. It needs art direction to tell a book illustrator not only what to draw, but how to draw it. Should a piece of art take up a full spread? Should it be a spot illustration (a small piece of art that takes up only part of the page)? This is something a children’s book editor should help with, often by creating a book map. Take a look at the example below, which breaks art into full-bleed illustrations, single-page illustrations, and spot art.
Looking at a book in this way is a good way to determine if there is enough visual variety. It also helps an author determine how many illustrations are needed, which is a huge factor in hiring a children’s book illustrator.
For more information on what goes into a developmental edit, check out professional children’s book editor Brooke Vitale’s article: Developmental Edit.
Once a manuscript is final, it’s easy to say that a book editor’s job is done. But in the case of a true children’s book editor, that’s not the case. Why? Because a picture book relies on more than just text. It relies on illustration. And a new author may not know what that should look like, or be aware of the pitfalls.
So, what should a children’s book editor do AFTER the book is edited? Easy. Keep reviewing it!
Book design template
The first step an author who is self-publishing a children’s book should take after having a book edited is to hire a book designer. This is the person who will marry story and illustration. The person who will decide on fonts for the book and ready final files for book printing. And the book designer’s first step is a design template.
A book design template means taking the text of the book and laying it out at the correct trim size for the book. Doing this before illustration starts means two things:
- A book illustrator knows what book size will be used and can draw to the right size.
- A book illustrator knows how text fits the page and can design art with text in mind.
Take a look at the example below. Here we see not only the text, but the art notes. We see that spot illustrations are needed on the left and a full-bleed illustration is called for on the right. We also see that the page is created to the RIGHT TRIM SIZE, with crop marks in place for art bleed (art that extends past trim size in case of paper shifting during book printing.)
Working with a design template doesn’t sound like a job for a children’s book editor, but it should be. At this stage, a children’s book editor should be reviewing how the text fits. They should be making any suggestions on moving text around the page. (For example, if the left side of the page has 2 lines of text and the right has 3, an editor might suggest putting text at the bottom of the page on one side and the top on the other, since the lines don’t balance.)
All of these notes will be incorporated into the book design template and then sent to the children’s book illustrator. (Want more info on designing a children’s book? Check out our previous article on designing a children’s picture book.)
Children’s book illustrations come in several stages: character sketch, thumbnail sketch, rough sketch, pencil sketch, line art, rough color, and final art. Take a look at the transition below:
And at each of these stages, a children’s book editor should be reviewing the illustrations. Why? Because it is their job to find things an author won’t know to look for!
One of the first things a children’s book editor will look for is whether there is enough room for the text. Ideally, children’s book illustrations should leave open spaces for text to sit. A window. The sky. A blank wall. A children’s book editor will call out if this is not happening, and if text will be hard to read. Take a look at the example below. This sketch, while cute, leaves no space on the page for text!
Now take a look at the revised illustration:
Book illustration layout
How does the illustration look on the page? Is something important going to be falling in the gutter of the book? Are the characters turned toward the right (as if moving forward with the story) or to the left (as if going backward).
Book illustration consistency
Does a character look the same from page to page? Does the background scene always look the same? It’s not uncommon to see some inconsistency in art, and all too often, a new author may not feel comfortable calling these things out to an illustrator. The children’s book editor is the author’s advocate. They are the voice of professionalism telling illustrators what really isn’t working.
A children’s book editor is worth it!
Not every children’s book editor offers these editorial services. But if you can find one who does—who knows what a picture book page should look like—your end product will be that much stronger for it!
Read more: Working with a book illustrator » Finding, paying, and communicating with an artist.
Read still more: The value of an editor » What an editor does and why you need one.
And even more: Design a children’s picture book » A how-to primer on children’s book design.
Book Design Made Simple. You can do it yourself.