Recently in The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing Category

Reducing Word Count

Reducing word count is especially important to magazine writers and to picture book writers since those types of writings have such low word counts. But, novelists have word limits, too. However, there are other reasons, besides the literal number, to cut words.

To my mind there are four areas to focus on for reducing word count.

First, cutting chaff.

photo courtesy of
grain & chaff.jpg


Chaff from
"the mass of husks, etc, separated from the seeds during threshing"
"something of little worth; rubbish (esp in the phrase separate the wheat from the chaff)"


This applies to all types of writing. Pieces of chaff are those weasel words and overused words. Weasel words slip into our writing no matter what the topic. Some of my personal culprits are: so, then, that, just, really. Overused words I'm responsible for include: looked, turned, as. Here's authorculture's list of ten most overused words in fiction. This link includes overused phrases as well as words. I love this collection.

While searching for references, I found another meaning for weasel words in an article by Richard Nordquist: "A modifying word that undermines or contradicts the meaning of the word, phrase, or clause it accompanies, such as 'genuine replica.'" Or in other words, doublespeak, implying something that is not true or perhaps meaningless. Read the article here.

Adverbs are often chaff. If the verb is strong enough, is the right verb, you don't need a verb with a modifier. (e.g. dashed versus ran quickly.) But there's something else we do with adverbs and other phrases and that's water down our message. Again, turning to an article by Richard Nordquist, I like this definition of hedging: "In communication, a word or phrase that makes a statement less forceful or assertive." Read the examples, if not the whole article to spot hedge words and phrases.

Adjectives could be chaff, too. A specific noun is better than a nonspecific noun with an adjective. What creates a better picture in your mind? A big car or a Hummer? The big car ran into the small car versus The Hummer crashed into the Smart car--the latter makes me shudder.

Next area, passive writing.

Finding passive verbs and making them more active, not only cuts word count, but livens the reading. (e.g. was climbing versus climbed and started to pedal versus pedaled) I like what the University of Wisconsin says here about active versus passive. Be a Better Writer explains passive verbs and continuous verbs.

I'm going to add "seems" and "seemed" to this category, as well. "She seems to want the dog." "He seemed mad." You're the author. Does she want the dog or not? Was he mad or wasn't he? Are you wanting the reader to guess? It's also a form of telling. Let us hear what she thinks about the dog. Show us his anger. It may not actually cut words, but the writing will be stronger.

Third area, tightening.

Each time I reread what I've written, I find unnecessary words and/or phrases. (The original said: "I find words and/or phrases that are unnecessary." Two words cut.) Getting rid of unnecessary words does more than make sentences shorter. The meaning becomes clearer. The writing is less cluttered.

When I tighten, I might cut whole paragraphs or scenes. (First attempt, the sentence was: "When I tighten, I might also have whole paragraphs or scenes that aren't needed." Four words cut.) If a paragraph/scene doesn't "move the story forward," doesn't show character, or have important plot details, try reading the story without it and see if it leaves a hole or not.

Sometimes, we only need a simple transition instead of complete details. For example, "He jumped out of bed." versus "He yawned and rubbed his eyes. After scratching his armpit, the boy flipped back the covers, slid out of bed and landed on his feet." Yes, the latter is more interesting. But is it necessary to the scene? If every action is described in detail, then we'll also follow him to the dresser where he opens a drawer and pulls out underwear, a shirt and pants, and puts them on along with his socks and shoes. We could have a whole page before he gets downstairs to breakfast where there's conflict waiting. Repeat that every day of the story and the reader will be bored because nothing is happening.

In picture books, there's a special form of tightening. That's taking out what the illustrator will put in. We don't usually need to describe the character's outward appearance in the text--there will be a picture. Ditto, setting.

In picture books we also leave out things that are not important or slow down the story. I remember hearing Pat Zietlow Miller talking about her lovely book SOPHIE'S SQUASH. There's a marker in the book. Pat said she first had the marker being the marker that Sophie wasn't supposed to use. But the point of the marker is that it was used to draw a face on the squash. We don't need the marker's backstory. The drawn face on the squash is what is important.

We also don't explain in picture books. In MR. PUSSKINS: a love story by Sam Lloyd, the cat uses a phone and the little girl drives a car. Both work without any explanation or excuse.

The final area to cut is individual words in the next to final draft.

When you are almost done with the manuscript, look at each individual manuscript page and see if you can cut five words, or twenty words. I've heard this suggestion from a number of authors ranging from Peg Kehret to Linda Sue Park to Richard Peck. At a recent conference, Richard challenged us to make the first line of the story fit on one line. This tightening strengthens the punch of the words.

Hard work? Oh, yeah. But worth it.

MS Wish List

photo courtesy of
wishing.jpgIf you're on twitter, you've probably seen the hashtag #MSWL. If you've read the SCBWI Insight, you're aware of it, too. Maybe you're still wondering though how useful it is. Or maybe you have no idea what I'm talking about. In either case, keep reading.

On the webpage itself you can find a collection of wish lists from a specific agent or editor. For example, here's a sampling from editor Cheryl Klein who has recently gotten involved with #MSWL.

Cheryl Klein
@chavelaque (her twitter handle)
After long thought and much perplexity, to be very brief was all that she could determine on with any confidence of safety. All tweets here my own. (her twitter bio)
Brooklyn, NY

She's interested in MG, YA, Nonfiction, Women, Diverse, Picture Books.

July 29th: I also want more MG/YA narrative nonfiction in history & science. Again: stakes, characters, good writing. Women & diversity a plus. #MSWL

July 29th: But the idea has to unfold thru v. real characters & a story w/ stakes, action & smarts. Ex OPENLY STRAIGHT, MARCELO IN THE REAL WORLD #mswl

July 29th: I always want Big Idea books -- PB/MG/YA whose story shows the character exploring a philosophical/political/personal idea or problem #MSWL

Interesting quick look at Cheryl and what she wants to see, right?

As of today, July 30th, there are 255 agent profiles listed on this website. There are also 130 editor profiles, 44 editorial assistants, and a number of other categories. Go here to see who they are. Once you have clicked on the type of person you are interested in, you can use the sort for categories such as Children, MG, Humor, etc. Editors, Agents, etc. are listed alphabetically by first name or by Agency name.

Does a listing on this site mean you can submit to that agent or editor? If you have something that fits their wish list, by all means. But if not, don't. Look at this query tip:

aba Sulaiman @agentsaba · 21h
"Although this isn't what you asked for, I hope y--" Stopstopstop. Pointing out that your book isn't on my wishlist won't help you. #querytip

Which reminds me, you can also click on Pub Tips, which will give you publication tips, including the query tip above.

There's also a Queries tab, which lets you get a look at some query responses such as these:

Eric W. Ruben, Esq. @EricRubenLawyer · 2d
Q1 YA: Dark subject matter and gritty MC. Not my style but might be good for someone else. Pass. #tenqueries

Laura Zats @LZats · 2d
Q456:C MG. Too introspective and not enough of a romp for me. #500queries #everyquery
There's also an Ask Agent tab. Here are a few samples:

Linda Epstein @LindaEpstein · 1d
@CharleyPearson Only resend a "completely revised" ms if it's "COMPLETELY revised." Otherwise it's just annoying. #askagent

Peter Knapp @petejknapp · 2d
Someone asked: Can you help explain the difference between YA & adult fiction w/ a teenage protag? #askagent

Do you have to be on twitter to use this site? Yes, and no. If you want to see more tweets related to a specific tweet, yes, you'll be directed to twitter. Do you have to have your own twitter account to read tweets? No. Do you have to have your own twitter account to read this website? No.

If you have more questions about the #MSWL hashtag, feel free to ask.

How to Stand Out

image courtesy of tcatcarson on morguefile.comstandout.jpg

Last year I was asked to be a judge for an SCBWI region's conference grants. They sent me submissions and I got right to work. It's always interesting seeing what others are writing. And I love it when I get to the end of a first page and wish there was more. But I thought it also might be helpful to share common problems I found when going through the grant submissions.

The first I noticed was category labeling*. In the children's book world, we usually expect picture book, chapter book, middle grade novel, YA novel, etc., which actually refers to the audience. Sometimes you'll see an additional genre label such as fantasy, magical realism, science fiction, contemporary, historical, etc. Some submissions did not indicate audience or genre. Others, more interestingly, had additional labels, but the first page of text didn't fit the description. In other words, it shouldn't require a label to know I'm reading fantasy--it should feel like fantasy. If it doesn't, then perhaps the writer needs to look at the first page again.

Editors and agents don't expect perfect in a manuscript, but mechanical errors on the first page are indications of less care elsewhere. Punctuation and grammatical errors I found included: run-on sentences, missing commas and misplaced modifying clauses.

Other mechanical errors related to formatting. One manuscript didn't have indented paragraphs, making it harder to read. The more common was extra spacing after paragraphs. Probably agents and editors don't care so much about this as I do, but it does mean writers aren't getting as many lines for a full page. It probably means these writers aren't aware of the nasty trick that Word uses as a default: adding 10 pts after a paragraph. This makes it look like a triple space after a paragraph versus a double. (Directions to fix it below.)

My critique group teases me about being the "as" Nazi. I admit it--the overuse of "as" drives me crazy, but I learned it from Deborah Halverson also known as Dear Editor ( And, yes, some submissions overused "as." "As" is a word we often use to show things happening simultaneously. Yes, in real life they do often happen at once. However, in writing it's easier to just think of things happening one at a time since we read them that way. Sometimes you can take "as" out and break the sentence into two sentences. Other times you might want to use another preposition, e.g. when, while, or reorder the sentence so it isn't necessary. Often when people use "as" they don't keep the events in chronological order. When it is used with a "said" and an action, simply take out the dialogue attribution and use the action. You can't not use "as," you just don't want to overuse it.

I also found in a number of submissions that the description of the book was more interesting than the first page itself. In some cases, the first page made me want to read on; in others, not. In some, I think the writer needed to get into the action or tension quicker. Or maybe it was to make me care more about the character. These are tough to accomplish in 250 words, I know.

Several submissions were in rhyme. There was near rhyme, which some editors are okay with, but others aren't. Sometimes the text was forced to make a line rhyme. The rhythm needs to be spot on, too.

Feedback is hard. So is not winning a contest or scholarship. But maybe one or two of these suggestions will improve your manuscript so it will stand out!

Removing the Word default of 10 pts after a paragraph

1. First, changing the default for all new documents...
- Open a blank document
- Go to Paragraph on your menu bar
>>in some versions you'll click on the word Paragraph
>>in others, you'll click on the arrow
- In the pop-up box, find Spacing
- Go to After: and change 10 pts to 0 pts
- Click on the Default box and now all new documents won't have these extra spaces

2. Second, fixing it on existing documents...
- Open the document
- Select the entire body of text
>>Depending on your version this can be done by:
........clicking Edit on the menu bar and choosing Select All
........Or by highlighting the text with your mouse and cursor
- Go to Paragraph on your menu bar
- In the pop-up box, find Spacing
- Go to After: and change 10 pts to 0 pts

* Thanks to Carol Riggs for noting that I used the word genre when I should have used category, which I have now corrected.


Guest post by Mary Blount Christianskateboarder.jpg

It helps when we create name for a fictional character to first create a background--positive and negative traits, talents, skills, interests, siblings and birth order, goals, conflicting emotions, support group [oft times friends more than siblings]. We make note of their needs--emotionally, physically, and spiritually; need to receive love and to give love, to have respect from peers and self, and to learn and achieve. Just ask yourself, what kind of character do I need to handle the challenges of my plot?beautifulgirl.jpg

I find giving them a name that seems right often makes things fall into place--is it a family name, an unusual one that may give way to teasing, a strong name or a weak one, or a preferred nickname? A good exercise is to imagine visiting the protagonist's room. How is it decorated? Any posters on the walls? Does it reflect her taste or is it in conflict? Go through the character's purse or wallet for the older characters, or the toy box or that treasure box tucked under the bed. What we keep defines us. People tend to carry their lives in their wallets--club memberships, family pictures, friends' pictures, that sort of thing.

facepaintedgirl.jpgIn the November 2011 The Writer magazine, Bharti Kirchner wrote an article, "Tips for Naming your Characters." She suggests that you get to know your character first [gender, personality, place of birth, hidden traits, ideals and socioeconomic status. Even the smallest of our readers share these. In names, she suggests that you not use names that work for either gender [Pat, Robin, Chris, etc.]

As tempting as it is, it's best to not give your characters names of your kin and friends. Your job is to give characters flaws and challenges that even those yearning to see their names in print probably won't like. Names need to fit your character the way a glove fits your hand.

Other things to avoid because repetition gets boring or confusing:
- All characters with one syllable names [Sam, Bill, Jan]
- Rhyming names [Harry and Larry, etc.]
- Names all beginning with the same letter
- Difficult to pronounce or spell

You can find popular US names listed by the birth year on the web at www.ssa/gov/acct/babynames. Most recent year is 2014.

Here's an index of researched surnames. For Asian names, try top 100 Chinese Surnames and Korean Surnames and Indian Surnames.

Host's note: Looking for another ethnicity? Google it, but I hope you aren't just using random last names with no idea about the culture where you got it. ;-)

MaryBChristian.jpgAbout Mary Blount Christian
Mary has more than 100 trade books published in the children's--plus reprints in Braille French, Japanese, Indonesian--and young adult field with six adult mysteries due in 2016. Follow her blog here.

Kid photos courtesy of

Kids Reading Books and Saying What They Think

image courtesy of Phaedra Wilkinson on
I recently ran across some blogs of preteen and teen bloggers because of MMGM (Marvelous Middle Grade Monday). Which made me interested in looking for more teens blogging about books.

It's fun seeing how articulate these kid bloggers are and what they are interested in reading. These kids are promoting good books now, which is so exciting. It was also fun seeing the books we like in common. We may be many years apart in age, but we share a love for some of the same stories.

What does that mean for me as a writer? It's a reminder that inside at some level we are still the same no matter what age we are. We still have hopes and dreams, struggle with issues of self-esteem or failure, have worries in our lives, etc. Those universal experiences are what make it possible for our stories to reach others and for others' stories to reach us.

It also is giving me a chance to see what books are appealing to some of today's kids. (I have grandsons and we discuss books they are reading, but no granddaughters, so don't get much firsthand experience on the girl side.) And, yes, this means my to-be-read list is getting longer and longer.

In case you are interested in checking out these young reviewers yourself, here's some I found.

Personal Websites:

The Paige Turner

Cindy Reads A Lot


This LA County Library has a teen review board! What a great idea!

Oh, look, Sno-Isle Libraries does the same thing, plus you get to find out what grade the teen is in.

Teen Space at the Cincinnati Library has a place for teens to review books and music.


Teen Ink is a magazine that features book reviews (and much more) by teens. Of course, at this age, many are reading "adult" books, too.

LitPick Student Book Reviews features reviews from kids all over the world.

Reader View Kids is a company that posts kids' book reviews.

Like many blogs, I found ones started by teens that have lasted a number of years and then the teen (or now adult) quit posting. Even found one library system that quit having teen posts although the old ones are still up.

If you know of any teens blogging about books, I'd love to hear about it.

Reducing Word Count

MS Wish List

How to Stand Out


Kids Reading Books and Saying What They Think


Selling Photos to Magazines

Poor Man's Copyright, a Myth

Missing Students

The Right Number of Characters

What Do You Do When You're Stuck?

Naming Your Character

Considering Self-Publishing?

When Educational Publishers Ask for Your Résumé

Say What?

Write Well When the Muse Is Sleeping

Writing Process Blog Tour

Truth in Fiction

Plodding or Plotting

Raise the stakes, honey!

One Size Does NOT Fit All


175 Proof

He Thought to Himself and Other Excesses

Confessions of a Writer Easily Distracted

Is That Right?

Writing Business Expenses


The Hero's Journey for Magazine Writers

Altitude and Attitude - Adult or Child?

Slow Down, You Move too Fast

Kidz Only! Adults Keep Out!

A Dark Side of Social Media

Do you struggle with grammar?

Can children and teens can get their work published?

Patience Required

I'm a Work-in-Progress

Illustrator Resources

Inspiration from Kate DiCamillo

Are Listserves a Service or a Waste of Time?

Writing and Life Balance

How To Start Querying an Agent


Nancy I. Sanders on Writing Nonfiction


Perfecting Dialogue Punctuation

Ouch! Thin Skin!

Agents Telling What They Want

School Visits, the Extended Version

Going Back to School

One of 75 finalists

Make It Work for You

Down with Discouragement!

Do as I Say

Professional Problem Maker

4 Ways to Make Your Characters "Talk Different"

Picture Book Month

Work-for-Hire Resources

Work-for-Hire Wisdom

Work-for-Hire also known as WFH

Picture Perfect Picture Books

Picture Book Resources

Author Talks versus Workshops

My Favorite Online Resources

Technicalities - More Thoughts on Public Speaking

Do as I Say

Theme List Tactics

What Would Sue Do?

Attribution or Action?

Don't Throw in the Towel

Do You Remember?

Dragged to the Podium

Double Identity - Pen Names

Before You Sign: Contract Resources

Welcome, Diane Bailey, Work-for-hire Champion

Ready, Set, Goal

An Editor's Day

How'd You Get That Gig?

On the Hunt for Ideas

Bloggers Supporting Other Bloggers

Shadowing a Submission

Give up or press on?

Turning Ideas Into Stories - Workshop

After the Critique

Keeping Track

The Synopsis Shrink

Mind Your Cs and Qs - part three

Mind Your Cs and Qs - part two

Mind Your Cs and Qs - part one

Standard Manuscript Format


Critique Methods

Market Research Resources - Agents



Organizations and Groups

Writing a Novel? Where Does It Fit?

Meeting Editors and Agents - In Person

Meet Editors and Agents - Online

Book It! - Recording What You Read

Theme and Premise

Self-Editing Tips

The Story Ladder or Novel Timeline

Showing Versus Telling

Read, Read, Read

The Power of a Good First Line

Hooking your Reader

Listen to the Voices


Viewpoint in Children's Fiction

Making Friends: Character Development

Glossary of Publishing Terms

Genre Resources

Children's Book Genres

Why Write?