Picture Book Format and How to Format Your Manuscript

Picture book manuscript format flummoxes a lot of aspiring children’s book writers because there is so much potential variety. In my career, I have seen hundreds of examples of picture book format. To help you stand out in the slush as polished and professional, I’ve developed a picture book manuscript template handout that I’ve used over the years to really streamline and clarify the process for writers.

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Click here to download my picture book format handout as a PDF. Feel free to share!

Picture Book Format

Picture book manuscript format tends to vary WIDELY. Some writers have it down. Others think they’re paginating correctly if they allocate a separate manuscript page to each line, resulting in a 32-page Word document that contains 300 words. What if a picture book manuscript template existed? It would certainly streamline things. As is, some writers include illustration notes, others stay far away. How do you paginate a children’s book? How do you format illustration notes correctly? This resources answers those questions (and here are more thoughts on illustration notes in your children’s book manuscript).

I’ve put together a handout that answers all these questions and more. No conference or webinar attendance required! Click this link to download the PDF.

How to Publish a Picture Book

Remember that picture book format is just one small component of a successful children’s book submission. You also have your picture book query letter, and, well, the most important thing: an awesome manuscript! Don’t focus so much on picture book manuscript format that you lose sight of character, plot, and writing style. Those are going to take you a lot further than a nice-looking, polished file … but the latter certainly doesn’t hurt.

That’s why I’m offering this picture book manuscript template tool to help you cross this concern off your list.

As a picture book editor, I work with writers on all aspects of the picture book craft, from creating a compelling children’s book manuscript (in proper picture book format, of course!) to nailing the query letter. Contact me for personal, actionable advice on your project.

Formatting Interiority

Based on last week’s post, I got a great question in the comments from Kyle about formatting interiority:

Mary, I love your thoughts on developing interiority both on your blog and in your book. I have a formatting question though: should those inner thoughts be set off in italics?

formatting interiority, writing interiority
Did I leave the oven on…?

For Verbatim Thoughts, Use Italics

The straight answer to formatting interiority is quite simple: whenever you render verbatim thoughts in text, you do want to use italics. For example:

Wow, time has sure flown by. The holidays are over and it’s halfway through January! I should probably throw out those Thanksgiving leftovers, she thought, giving the fridge a wary look.

Super easy. Just put the thought in italics, avoid any kind of quotation marks (those are for spoken dialogue), and either add a “thought” tag, as you would a “said” tag in dialogue, or don’t. It all depends. If you’re citing verbatim thoughts a lot, you won’t need to do this after the first few times, because the reader will know that italics mean thoughts.

Alternatives For Writing Interiority

But this question does raise a bigger one. Does interiority have to exist purely as verbatim thought, or are there other ways to render it in narration? In my view, interiority can absolutely exist as part of regular narration, meaning that you don’t have to stick something into italics/thought in order for it to be a thought. If that makes sense.

Perhaps an example would clarify. Compare this with the verbatim thought that appears above:

Mary gazed over at the fridge and, with a pang, realized that there was still Thanksgiving gravy congealing in a Tupperware somewhere on the bottom shelf. Where had the days gone? Only yesterday, it seemed, they were getting the house ready for guests and turkey, stumbling over one another in a cleaning frenzy. Now it was almost time to write Valentines.

The tone is a little bit different. Both examples of writing interiority are in close third person, but the former is directly in the character’s thoughts, while the other takes a step back. It stays close, obviously, but doesn’t put anything in thought formatting. “Where had the days gone?” could easily be a verbatim thought, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be, because it matches the voice in either configuration.

Formatting Interiority Boils Down to Style

Basically, this is a very nitpicky distinction to make, and what you decide regarding formatting interiority is ultimately up to you. It boils down to style. I personally prefer the latter example, but that’s just me. The reason I would advocate for this over sticking everything into thought formatting is that it looks a bit cleaner on the page, you’re not presenting block after block of italics. But it really is up to you. I’m simply so happy to have people playing around with writing interiority and thinking critically about it that I say you should follow your bliss and do anything that makes sense to you.

Want to dig deeper into interiority as it applies to your work? With my developmental editing services, you’ll get customized, actionable advice on how to use this powerful tool.

Describing What the Mind is Doing by Writing Thoughts

In a lot of manuscripts, I’ve seen attempts at writing thoughts like, “My mind exploded with questions” or “He interrupted my train of thought with his voice.” There’s nothing technically wrong with these bits of narrative, but they fall onto the chopping block because of my aversion to filler. (Filler should be trimmed in your writing revision process — click the link for more info.) If the mind is exploding with questions, you don’t need to narrate that. Cut right to the interiority (thoughts, feelings, reactions) and the specific questions.

If someone is brought out of a meditative moment or otherwise interrupted, let’s get that in interiority instead of the simple description.

writing thoughts, how to show thoughts in writing
If someone interrupts your character’s VERY IMPORTANT train of thought about Halloween decorations, make sure you know how to translate that interruption into your writing.

Tips on Writing Thoughts

Let’s look at some examples.

Should I get the light-up pumpkins, or the little spiders? Gosh, Target is tough. Too much good stuff, but I can’t get it all. I wish I had more of a decorator’s eye. Maybe these sconces shaped like witch hats will redeem me. I’ve never done anything Pinterest-worthy in my life. How about this cauldron bowl for all the–
“Sweetie?”
“Huh?”
My husband looks at me like it’s not his first time trying to get my attention. “I think we have enough Halloween stuff.”

I can’t possibly figure out what inspired this example about how to show thoughts in writing. Certainly not a trip to Target over the weekend. 😉 But here we can see the train of thought interrupted in action, rather than narration. It would be superfluous to also include description of how I’m brought out of my thoughts, for example:

I’ve never done anything Pinterest-worthy in my life. How about this cauldron bowl for all the–
My husband interrupts my thoughts. “Sweetie?”
I’m still thinking about candy bowls when the fantasy comes to a grinding halt. “Huh?”

Em-dashes Denote Interruption

Here, the idea of being interrupted is pasted on so thick that it slows down the narration. As a bonus side note, let me remind you that you can also exterminate filler on the topic of interruptions in dialogue. There’s formatting to do that work for you. Use an em-dash when you’re writing thoughts to denote interruption. I’ve seen a lot of writers using an ellipse and narration, but there’s a much easier and cleaner way.

Before (less correct):

“I think we need more candy. What if a lot of kids…”
Todd interrupts me. “We don’t need more candy. We have ten bags already.”

After (better!):

“And what about pumpkins? Let’s line the driveway, and get one for each step, and–”
“You’re giving me a migraine.”

The em-dash successfully communicates the interruption. There’s absolutely no need to narrate it (“Todd interrupts”) because your formatting is doing all the work on your behalf.

Ellipses Indicate Drifting Off

An ellipse, on the other hand, indicates a speaker who has drifted off instead of one who is abruptly cut short. For example:

“But I don’t want any of that…”
“Any of what?”
“The stuff, the spider…”
“Webs?”
“Yes! No spider webs. We’ll be picking them out of the bushes until Thanksgiving!”

There you have it — some thoughts on, well, how to show thoughts in writing! Happy (early) Halloween!

If you’re struggling with interiority, hire me as your manuscript editor and we’ll work on it together.

Dialogue Tips and Dialogue Formatting

Two quick-and-dirty nuts-and-bolts dialogue tips for dialogue formatting. But dialogue in fiction has many rules to follow. Writers are always curious about formatting dialogue, or how to write it better. Why? Literary agents and publishers are always looking for examples of sharp, smart dialogue that’s a distillation of real life, or real life enhanced. This is a very nuanced topic, above and beyond the scope of one post, but here are two dialogue tips that you want to make sure you follow.

dialogue tips, dialogue formatting
“Oh, hello, Susan. Would you like to hear my best ‘Your Mom’ joke? Or is it ‘your mom’?”

Two Simple Dialogue Tips

First, if you are addressing a character by name, the standard formatting includes a comma before and the capitalization of the name. An example:

“Would you like this disgusting tennis ball, Gertie?” (My dog’s favorite question.)

Second, if the character happens to be the parent in your story, you need to make an important distinction. Are you addressing them as Mom or Dad (as if it is their name), or are you referring to them as a noun? I see this all the time in manuscripts. Here’s an example that makes the distinction clear:

“Do you have a mom, too, Mom?”

Here, you can talk about “a mom” or “her dad” or “his mommy” all you want, but it is lowercase. The second you use it to address a character, just as you would a name, it becomes capitalized. A quick proofread will tell you if you’re on the right track. If not, commit this simple dialogue formatting rule of thumb to memory. (Read for more tips? Maybe about dialogue tags? Now we’re getting into the real meat of this very important topic.)

Dialogue writing can be tricky for even the most seasoned writer. Not only do I proofread every manuscript for errors like these as your book editor, but I’ll give you bigger picture creative feedback on your work.

Including Illustration Notes in Your Children’s Book Manuscript

This easily answered question about writing a children’s book manuscript and illustration notes in picture book manuscript format comes from longtime reader Siski:

I’ve got a story that absolutely requires illustration notes but I feel amateurish including them because I’ve read you shouldn’t do it when writing a children’s book manuscript. Should I try to rewrite the story without them?

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Less is more when it comes to illustration notes in picture book manuscript format.

Picture Book Manuscript Format

Just so we’re immediately clear, I’ll talk a little bit about picture book manuscript format. When you’re writing a children’s book, you’ll typically have your text on the page, with line breaks or white space to indicate page breaks as you envision them. Like this:

I am writing a picture book story.
I think it’s very fun.

I’ll include a page break in it,
So the lines don’t start to run.

You can even dictate page breaks in parentheses, like this:

(Page 1)

I am writing a picture book story.
I think it’s very fun.

(Page 2)

I’ll include a page break in it,
So the lines don’t start to run.

Well, when you’re writing and you want to convey something about how you see the page illustrated, you include illustration notes, usually in parentheses and italics. This is what we’re talking about:

I am writing a picture book story.
I think it’s very fun.

(Illo: Mary cradling her MacBook Air, beating out the meter of her story with her fingers.)

Writing a Children’s Book Manuscript: Illustration Notes

If you write picture books, you’ll hear a lot of opinions about illustration notes. Some people say they’re a no-no, others say to add them in. I’m in the middle of the debate on this one. The reason so many people advise against illustration notes is this: too many writers use illustration notes to micromanage.

For example, you’ll see illustration notes like:

(Illo: Sally has brown hair, glasses, and a blue skirt. She is skipping down the street with a red backpack in one hand, a lunch sack in the other, by a house with a green mailbox, while her braid swings to the left.)

Or the note will be too detailed in other ways. Or the writer will include an illustration note for every page. The list of illustration note misuses goes on and on.

Illustration Notes Note Do’s and Dont’s

The point of an illustration note isn’t to jot down every single thing that’s in your imagination. It’s also not to micromanage the potential illustrator. The point of an illustration note is to convey something to the children’s book manuscript reader that is not obvious from the text.

Only use illustration notes in your picture book manuscript if there is something integral to the plot that you want the illustrations to convey, but it’s not described or alluded to anywhere in the text. In other words, if I will be blind to something from just reading the text, use an illustration note to describe it, but really do keep them simple, spare, and few in number. The average picture book text will only need one or two, tops. An example of an effective picture book note:

I am writing a picture book story.
I think it’s very fun.

(Illo: Mary typing, blithely unaware that a monster is sneaking up behind her, claws bared.)

If you’re interested in a picture book editor with over ten years of experience, hire me to dig into your children’s book manuscript.

How to Write Thoughts in Fiction and Formatting Thoughts

If you want to go deeply into your character’s experience, or interiority, you will want to write their thoughts. And how to write thoughts in fiction includes formatting thoughts correctly. Here are some, well, thoughts on both topics.

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Character thoughts are where the good stuff is, but think you know how to write thoughts? Or formatting thoughts? Think again!

Formatting Thoughts

There are several schools of (ahem) thought on how to write thoughts and then format them in fiction writing. One is that all verbatim thoughts are formatted in italics. The second school is that verbatim thoughts can be left unformatted as long as you use a “thought” tag, for example, “she thought” at the end of the phrase. This isn’t my preferred because I struggle to get writers away from excessive dialogue tags in general.

I would say just italicize your thoughts and then forget about it, but there’s more nuanced discussion of formatting interiority here.

How to Write Thoughts Tip

Can we please put a manuscript moratorium on the following phrases:

I’m so bored, she thought to herself.

I need a cheeseburger, he thought in his head.

Of course a character thinks something to themselves. They’re the ones thinking it! They don’t think it to someone else unless they can communicate telepathically (in which case this moratorium doesn’t affect your book). Normally when someone has a thought, it is directed to his or herself. And, usually, unless there’s something creative about their anatomy, they think in their heads!

That makes logical sense to you, right? So why am I seeing so many characters thinking to themselves?! Or thinking in their heads?!

The correct thing to write would just be “she thought” and “he thought.” Or, better yet, italics and nothing at all. Simple, effective!

If ever you find this in your WIP, highlight it and then … press the delete button.

Interiority (getting deeply into the character’s experience) is the cornerstone craft concept that I teach as a novel editor. If you’d like to explore this as it applies to your project, please reach out.