2 Major differences between writing a picture book and writing short stories

So the folktale project turned out to be an eye-opening experience for me.


Am I a writer, or a barber?

When I first started writing for kids, I didn’t really understand the difference between short stories and picture books. I’d submit short stories to book publishers, and picture books to magazines who published short stories. Selling Raizy and being guided through revisions by Devorah Leah Rosenfeld, the editor at Hachai, schooled me in the differences between the two media. After a couple years, I started writing regularly for children’s magazines, and her lessons allowed me to jump between the two formats.

2 Major differences between picture books and short stories:


1) The length differs significantly in the two formats. Oddly, an entire picture book has about half the words (sometimes less) as a short story for a kids’ magazine.

2) The illustrations in a picture book replace almost all the description. And the only words that could appear in a picture book text are ones that drive the narrative forward. When I learned this lesson, my picture book writing attained a sharpness that it had previously lacked.

After I moved to magazine writing, my spare style had to rediscover the visuals it had cast aside. When I began to write for teens and adults, my writing had to become more elaborate still, really painting a picture for readers. I had the luxury of adding a detail, even an entire scene, to establish a setting, for extra characterization or even just for laughs.

These lessons served me well in my recent project.

In adapting the folktale I’d selected for a picture book, I had to keep the differences between the short story and picture book formats in the forefront of my mind. The source material for my book were various versions of a folktale a few thousand words long, written for adults. Now I had to shrink this puppy down to a picture book length. Many of the most charming details of the folktale that had beguiled me years ago simply had to go. If they didn’t forward the narrative or demonstrate the most essential theme of the story, they had to be cut, no matter how much I loved them. Gone were elaborate depictions of the exotic landscape and costumes. Gone were the framing devises and a great deal of the subtle symbolism. Gone were all the inessential characters.

Making the deletions and substitutions wasn’t so painful as in the past, when I felt like I was violating the artistic integrity of any piece I was slicing and dicing. This surprised me, actually, because this folktale has the weight of the generations upon it. You’d think I’d have some veneration for its classic status. Nope. Snip, snip, cut.

After a lot of work, I distilled a story that originally (depending on the version) ran to about 3000 words down to about 1100 words. Longer than the average picture book, but about right for one based on a folktale that includes repetition. I focused exclusively on a single storyline and the theme it addressed. Additionally, I converted a lot of  narration into dialogue. Everything was toned down to the understanding of a 4-8 year old child. For the first time, all these shifts came to me easily–hopefully as a result of cumulative experience–and thank G-d, some Heavenly inspiration struck when I needed it most.

I’d love to hear from any readers about their experiences when shifting between genres or formats. Does it come easier with time? Is it a conscious process, or do you code-switch instinctively?

2 thoughts on “2 Major differences between writing a picture book and writing short stories

  1. Moving from only writing for print magazine to writing for online sites has turned me into a rocket. I feel like I’m shooting out articles on a variety of topics. I wonder if the quality goes down or at least the development of a thesis point fully, but from the number of views seen on a site’s article or a blog, it doesn’t matter. They are getting read and commented on. Thsnks for an astute post.


  2. Thanks for your insights. I’ve been published more in adult general interest and educator journals, and trying now to shed some of that formality as I head into a middle/high school fiction landscape.


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