Alliteration Always Annoys

Well, not always, but it’s getting there. I’ve been thinking a lot about picture books since I wrote a new picture book talk for the awesome SCBWI Southern Breeze Springmingle this past weekend. Now I’m delving into my picture book critiques for the Writer’s Digest picture book craft intensive webinar that I taught in January. (Be patient, ye webinar attendees, I’m going to Bologna in March for the children’s rights fair and will be doing a lot of traveling. Per the critique guidelines, I have until April 12th to get them done!)

This post isn’t inspired by any one picture book manuscript from that batch (so don’t worry, students, I’m not talking about one of you in particular)…and that’s the problem. One of my growing pet peeves about picture book writers (and their imaginations) is alliteration. Gosh, I have a lot of pet peeves, I know. But I sit here and read manuscripts all day. That’s what I do. Tens of thousands of them. And so I see a lot of common trends and writer mistakes that I know you don’t because you don’t read nearly as many different potential books as I do. It’s an issue of context.

A lot of people seem to think that the bulk of their characterizing work or word choice craft in picture books comes down to alliterating. And that’s it. Just name him Sammy Skunk and kick up your feet because your work here is done! Right? Not quite. And “Sammy Skunk skips smilingly down the springtime sage-speckled slope” is all you have to do in order to nail that pesky concept of voice! Right? Again…not really.

But more and more, I get picture book manuscripts that lean way too heavily on alliteration in order to “accomplish” (so thinks their author) both character and voice. It’s a lot like rhyme. A lot of writers remember rhyme in picture books, so they think they have to write in rhyme. A lot of writers see alliteration in PBs, so they alliterate. Both cause scribes to contort themselves into a type of sentence pretzel of unnatural language.

In rhyme, writers adopt an almost Victorian syntax in order to make sure they end on the right word. In alliteration, word order also tends to sound unnatural because you’re letting the first letter dictate your word choice. This blog post has a terrible title. “Alliteration always annoys.” Nobody talks like that! It doesn’t sound organic! But I had to in order to shoehorn some alliteration in there, and the writers in my slush perpetrate a lot worse in order to stay consistent at the expense of meaning.

So instead of lending you a coveted voice, alliteration makes you sound contrived in most cases. And if I see another cutesy alliterative character name, I will scream. Aim for more sophistication in your writing, especially for the picture book audience. That will set you way, way, way above and beyond the rest of the slush.

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  1. Stacey Woods’s avatar

    Wow, apparently my brain has gone to sleep. When I started reading this, I could have sworn you said, “I’m going to eat Bologna in March for traveling children.”

  2. Carol Riggs’s avatar

    Absolutely! Usually I find that alliterated character names are a flag that the writer is a newbie. It takes more imagination to come up with a unique and appropriate name that isn’t alliterated–but it’s more fun to read (gives the parents something to chuckle about when they’re reading to their child). Good luck with your critique schedule!

  3. Amelia’s avatar

    Practically perfect post! Ooohh…you’re right. That is annoying…

  4. Dori K.’s avatar

    “Sentence pretzel of unnatural language” is a perfect description.

    Good seeing you at Southern Breeze. Happy travels.

  5. Mirka Breen’s avatar

    I just finished the first draft to my only alliteration-filled PB (to date)- it just came out that way.
    But *oh* how I can relate to your frustration- cute for cute’s sake winds up being cloying.
    {I can also imagine how someone who wants to represent edgy would have no use for cute, even the organic sort.}

  6. christine tripp’s avatar

    Part of what I love about the 6 blogs I look in on a daily is, I truly do learn something each time!
    I confess to not knowing what Alliteration meant until now.
    By pure luck, it seems Alliteration is one of the very few writers sins I am NOT guilty of.
    1 down, 99 other “common mistakes made by writers” to go:)

  7. Stella Michel’s avatar

    Wow, I’m always surprised to hear of authors still giving their picture book characters alliterated names. It’s such a newbie no no (how’s that for alliteration?). Not that I know everything, by any means. I’m surprised you still have to remind aspiring authors to avoid this, though.

  8. Mary Ann Duke’s avatar

    The guilty (of alliteration) writers may be elementary school teachers. Here in my area of the U.S. our teachers are taught to give students various writers’ tricks–alliteration being one of the specific ones encouraged. Scary, huh?

  9. Lauren’s avatar

    Oh No! ANOTHER skunk reference!!! I am doomed!
    (Although there is minimal alliteration in my text) YIKES.
    Have fun in Bologna… keep the Chow.lit entries coming!

  10. DianaM’s avatar

    But nobody would fault Karma Wilson for writing about Hilda Hippo. And that’s because she did it well! And of course, she didn’t go overboard.

    I’m sure alliteration is as annoying as rhyming when done poorly.

  11. christine tripp’s avatar

    Diana, your right. Here in Canada (and of course the books are popular in the US too) there is “Scaredy Squirrel”, a series of books that began not too many years ago. If the work is good, another squirrel and a little “name/title” alliteration is over looked:) Of course, the interior text is hilarious and brilliant and minus the allit!

  12. Diana Murray’s avatar

    Exactly, Christine! :) But I don’t want to make it sound like I disagree with Mary. I know she wasn’t implying that one should never alliterate. Just that it’s a common pitfall. And it’s definitely helpful to know what unsuccessful manuscripts tend to have in common.

  13. Damon Dean’s avatar

    Good advice for me…
    Hello, my name is Damon, and I am an alliterator…

  14. christine tripp’s avatar

    “hi Damon” in keeping with the 12 steps theme:)

    In almost all cases, name and interior alliteration is done about as well as rhyming manuscripts, and as with rhyme, there are only a few times that it is done well and works. I too agree with Mary. Margaret Atwood has published 3 Children’s books based entirely on the alliteration of a specific letter.

    This is, of course, very different then what Mary is speaking of, but even though these books are by Atwood, who can and does do it all, and though they were done purposely, for the sake OF alliteration, they are darn hard to read, especially out loud. The story can’t help but get lost as you find yourself focusing on all the R or B or W words in each book.
    (It also helps to have the Illustration match the meaning, as in the case of “Willowy Wanda” and the Illustration depicts a tiny, roundish child:)
    So, even when a, without doubt, world renowned Author, aided by an equally well known Illustrator, writes in alliteration, and it comes out with some faults (in my opinion of course), imagine most anyone else trying it with success?

  15. Marian Louise Camden’s avatar

    Alliteration is a literary tool, neither positive or negative. It’s use is only as good as its author. I love alliteration that is subtle and conveys meaning and sound without mentally subverting the story line. Cutesy alliteration drives me nuts, too–and puns are even worse. I believe journalists, in particular, should be banned from publishing “punny” titles for their news stories for the next ninety years.

    I admire this thoughtful and well-constructed article and offer the author a chance to give me the acid test: if you have a little time, let me know what you think of the alliteration in my two new pictures books. See earthchildbooks.com. Honestly, you wrote so intelligently about this subject that I would even send you a PDF of some of my favorite alliterative lines from the story–and that’s putting my babies on the altar!

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