Tuesday, May 19, 2009

It’s Not Child’s Play: Revising and Editing Your Children’s (or Young Adult) Book by Margo Dill

If you write for children or teens, you know it’s hard work even if you’ve encountered one of these conversations:

“So, what do you do?” asks husband of friend.

“I’m a children’s writer.” You smile.

“How come you decided to write for kids and not try to write a real book for adults?” Husband of friend takes a drink while you plan his kidnapping for your next teen mystery novel. “That must be so fun!” he adds.

Someday, the rest of the world will realize how difficult it is to write books for these young readers—even picture books—and you’ll be able to say, “I told you so.”

Where does this hard work begin? From the minute you start your rough draft. But one of the hardest parts of writing for kids is editing and revising your own story. In the past month with my freelance editing business Editor 911, I’ve edited a rhyming picture book, an historical fiction young adult novel, and a middle-grade fantasy. All of these manuscripts were well-thought out and had publishing possibilities, but they also needed some revision.

Revision is the key to changing a great idea into an excellent manuscript. Based on my editing work over the past month, classes and workshops I’ve attended, and my own children’s writing experience, I’ve noticed that many of us make the same mistakes during our first draft or two. My critique group often catches mine—when my character’s voice goes missing or my rhyme scheme isn’t just right. Then, I hurry home to revise the story, polish it up, and send it off.
If you want to revise and edit your own work, then here are some steps to get your story closer to the hands of your intended audience.

Set your story aside for a few days before you do anything with it. This is good advice that I’ve heard from many experts in the writing field. You’ll catch many more grammar/punctuation mistakes, voice inconsistencies, and awkward sentence structures if you look at your writing with fresh eyes.

After you’ve read through your manuscript one time and you have fixed glaring mistakes that popped out, you need to dig deeper. Here are some questions to ask. And don’t just ask them, answer them too—honestly!

In children’s stories, children or teens should be the main characters. (If you are writing about a magical world, then the main character should act/sound like a teen or child.) Is my main character a year or two older than my intended audience? In general, kids DO NOT like to read about a younger main character or a bunch of adults.

This next question is a big one—and often hard to do: You have a problem in your story—does your teen or child main character solve the problem with minimal help from adults? Or do the adults sweep in and save the day? Adults SHOULD NOT solve the problem for your characters. In most kids’ books, adults, including older brothers and sisters, should play a minor role in the story. You’ll most likely receive rejection slip after rejection slip if your main character watches his problem being solved for him.

Do you over-explain concepts, issues, characters, or setting for your young readers? Kids are smart and can figure stuff out without you telling them everything. If you haven’t read a children’s or young adults’ book lately, then you might want to do this before revising your own manuscript, and you’ll see what I’m talking about. Children and teens do not want to be talked down to; and if you tell them too much in your story, that’s how they may feel. You don’t have to write: “Bob didn’t do his homework, so he was afraid he would get in trouble. Most kids get in trouble when they don’t do their homework even if their teacher is nice. Bob didn’t do his homework because he watched too much TV last night. TV watching is a huge problem for some kids.” Instead you could say: “Bob felt so tired in the morning from tossing and turning all night, worried that he would get in huge trouble when Mrs. Smith found out he didn’t do his homework. And his only excuse—he watched the superheroes marathon on TV last night.” Kids will know the rest—they deal with these same homework issues every day of their school lives.

This last question pertains to rhyming picture book writers. Is your rhyme perfect? Your rhyme really does have to be perfect, and this is EXTREMELY hard to do. Now, you ‘re probably thinking of a bunch of rhyming picture books you’ve seen lately where the rhyme is not perfect, and so a little made up word here or there in your manuscript is no big deal and so on. But let’s face it—you’re not a major celebrity or Dr. Seuss, and we are in the middle of a terrible economic situation. Is an agent or editor going to take a chance on a first-time author with a cute picture book idea and almost perfect rhyme? Chances are slim. The best way, again, to get perfect rhyme is to study picture books with perfect rhyme and see the way these authors do it. It’s not just about having rhyming words on the end of every other line. You have to pay attention to syllables and word stresses and proper sentence structure. Writing a perfect rhyming picture book should take you months or even years, not hours. If you can’t get it, then consider taking your idea and writing it without the rhyme. Just try it—you might find a gem.

Once you’ve asked these questions, answered them, and revised your manuscript, put it aside again for a few days. Do you have someone who can read it for you and give you unbiased feedback? Maybe a writing friend or an honest neighbor? You can also join organizations like Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and they can hook you up with a critique group or writing partner. You can also look into finding a freelance editor. If you are not comfortable sharing your drafts with someone else before you send them to an agent or editor, then read your manuscript backwards (yes, that’s not a typo—backwards, from the end to the beginning) to catch any grammar, punctuation, or spelling mistakes that your spelling and grammar checker didn’t catch.

Have fun revising your work—play around with the language, and turn your great idea into a manuscript that an editor can’t resist! Then I’ll see you on the bookshelves. . .

**WIN A FREE CRITIQUE FROM EDITOR 911. Anyone who leaves a comment on ANY post on my blog, “Margo Dill’s Read These Books and Use Them” (http://margodill.com/blog) , in May will be entered into a drawing for a free 10-page (2500-word) critique on any manuscript for children or adults. When you leave a comment, tell me about your favorite children’s book (if I haven’t reviewed it yet), or leave a comment about a book already listed on the site.


Margo L. Dill is a freelance writer, editor and substitute teacher, living in Mahomet, Illinois. Her work has appeared in publications such as Grit, Pockets, Missouri Life, ByLine Magazine, and The News-Gazette. Her first book, Finding My Place, a middle-grade historical novel, will be published by White Mane Kids. She runs her own editing business, Editor 911, and she loves working with writers to improve their stories. She also writes a blog called, “Read These Books and Use Them,” for parents, teachers, and librarians. When she's not writing, she loves spending time with her husband, stepson, and two dogs—Chester, a Boxer, and Hush Puppy, a Basset Hound.


  1. Hello Gayle:
    It was nice to meet you at Johnson City public library. Thanks for Virtual Writers’ Conference. I am a stay at home mother and don’t get much chance to go to writers’ conferences. This blog is very interesting and I’m learning from it. Thanks.

  2. You're very welcome, Anahita. I hope you gain a lot of helpful information.

    Take care,

  3. Some very good points. It's true how a story that is "perfect" one day can be full of flaws the next. Sometimes I wonder where did that come from. Nice article. Thanks.



  4. I tried writing a YA book with a friend and there is NOTHING easy about it! A well written kids book for any age can still captivate me as much as any 'real book' written for adults. Lemme know when you write about that gentleman's kidnapping. :-)

  5. Dana, I totally agree with you! :) One of my friends and I (both in our 30s) are constantly joking about how we have read more YA books in the last year than "adult" books. Good luck to you with your writing!

    Beverly, I soooo know what you mean about a "perfect" story not being so perfect when you look at it again. That even happens to me all the time once I sent it to an editor, and decided to look it over.

    Thanks for the comments!
    Margo :)

  6. I love a good YA book too. It satisfies by inner child and my adult need for a good read!

  7. Margo,

    Excellent advice. I just started a middle grade book this year. I didn't think it would be so hard compared to writing romance. It has me on my toes, but I'm enjoying it. Your advice will help me stay in the children book writing mode vs the adult book writing.

    Thanks :)

  8. I didn't find writing my second YA book nearly as difficult as I did the first. Somehow it flowed so easily, ideas and themes popping into my head as needed and everything just pulling together so beautifully, though I probably need to read it again to check for glaring inconsistances.

    DW Golden
    Sour with fairies in this new young adult novel: Purple Butterflies.