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Guest Post: Leslie Helakoski and Darcy Pattison–WORD CHOICES: WRITING PICTURE BOOKS THAT SOAR

What are your words doing for you other than giving the reader information? Choosing words carefully can do more than define. Is your story lulling a child to sleep? Or helping them zoom and zip? Do you want an organized military feel or a meandering wandering feeling? Word choice–even the sound of the words–can make the difference between a picture book manuscript that soars and one that stays grounded.
Word Choices
Because each word in a picture book is at a premium, choose words that do double duty. Perhaps the words convey the action but also echo a mood of the piece or the feeling of a character.

 “Big chickens run across a field.”

Compared to:

“Big chickens tiptoe across a field.”

Changing the verb to “tiptoe” adds tension and conveys the idea that these chickens are trying to get away with something–all that extra info with one word!

PLACEMENT OF WORDS
Another idea to consider is the placement of the power word in a sentence. What word is most important? Should it be at the beginning middle or end of a sentence?

She needed to stop running.

Compared to:

She needed to stop.

The first example puts STOP in the middle of the sentence, which weakens the meaning and instead emphasizes the running. In the second sentence, STOP is a one-syllable word that ends abruptly. Reading that sentence transforms the words into an experience of stopping.

RHYTHM OF WORDS
By adjusting rhythm, word choices can direct where a reader should pay attention.

But I have to admit, two DOES sound like fun

Compared to:

But I have to admit that TWO sounds like fun.

Rhythm matters even if you are not writing in rhyme. Where do you want the emphasis to fall? On the word TWO or the word DOES? TWO makes a more powerful impact especially if this is a counting book or involves numbers.  Keep the emphasis on key words when possible. To complicate your word choices, you should make your words fall into line like a natural speech pattern.

SOUND OF WORDS
Phonics plays a part too. Higher vowels like long a (gate), long e (see)  and short i (pig) are building blocks for rising action while lower tones such as long oo (boot), ah (fog), and short oo (book) can bring home a line.

“Four big chickens strutted all the way home.”

Compare to:

“They strutted home like four big chickens.”

In the first example, the low tones in HOME make it a good closing word. The second sentence leaves an unsettled feeling, as if something else should follow.

In general, the higher vowel sounds are light and airy instead of grounding like lower tones. Sometimes, thank goodness, we do this unintentionally and don’t even know why one way sounds better than the other but if we dig around, we’ll find that it is tonal or related to phonics.

We love playing with words and the more we play with them, the more powerful we find them to be. They go far beyond definition–shape, length, mood, sound all play a part in making a good story one that is a joy to read.

–Leslie Helakoski and Darcy Pattison


Join Darcy Pattison and Leslie Helakoski as they play around with words at the Highlights workshop, PB&J (Picture Books and All That Jazz).

Posted on: April 3, 2017

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