How Visual Thinking Improves Your Picture Book Manuscripts

Maybe you’ve written a picture book manuscript (or two). Maybe you’ve even been through revisions a couple (hundred) times. But have you considered the way words and art work together in your story? Even if you’re not an illustrator, you need to consider how art can improve the book you’ve written.

The best picture books make equal use of words and illustrations; the story wouldn’t make much sense if one or the other were missing. Here’s an example taken from the text of Leo: A Ghost Story by Mac Barnett and Christian Robinson:


"Leo was glad to have company. On the family’s first night, he made them mint tea and honey toast. Leo thought he was being a good host.

But the family saw things differently."

What these words don’t tell you is that Leo is invisible! So the tray of food holding the mint tea and honey toast appears to be floating in mid-air. The art on this page is crucial to understanding what’s going on in the narrative. Otherwise, we wouldn’t know what the family was seeing so differently.

As a picture book writer, you need to come up with instances like this where the art improves and adds to the story. I like to think of this as visual thinking. Picture book art shouldn’t simply repeat what is written on the page in words. There’s an important relationship between words and art—they need to work together to tell the full story. 

One way to do this is to make sure the text of your picture book focuses on things like action and tone, not on description. Allowing the art to do the heavy lifting with descriptions leaves you with more words to tell the parts of the story that can’t be shown through images.

If you have areas in your picture book manuscript that require illustrations to tell the full story, then you should add illustration notes so the reader isn’t left confused. But remember that you only want to use illustration notes if the art is absolutely necessary (meaning, it conveys something that isn’t obvious from the text alone). And if you’re having trouble keeping the word count of your picture book down (1000 words is a good maximum to keep in mind if you’re a debut writer), making changes so illustrations tell part of the story just might help you out.

It doesn’t matter if you’re an illustrator or not, visual thinking needs to be a part of your writing and revising process as a picture book writer. 

If you're looking for more picture book resources, check out my archived posts: Picture Books Aren’t Easy and How to Query a Picture Book.