Monday 15 November 2021

Do you control the verse, or does the verse control you? by Michelle Robinson

If you’re serious about writing picture books, you’ve probably been warned-off writing in rhyme. The reason given was most likely that rhyme doesnt easily translate, making it hard to sell co-edition rights and limiting potential profits.

I expect you’ve argued back: Rhyming hasn’t done Julia Donaldson any harm. Loads of popular and successful picture books are written in verse.

It’s all true. You know what else is true? Those popular and successful books are exceptional, and your attempt at rhyming text is most probably  not.

It’s an uncomfortable fact to deliver, and an even harder fact to swallow, but it’s still a fact. Ask any editor, agent or skilled writer of rhyming picture book texts. We get sent dreadful text after dreadful text, and are left wondering, how can the writer not see how bad they are at this?

Let’s just break that bit in bold down a second. 

Rhyming. Picture book texts.

Writing rhyme requires skill.

Writing picture books requires skill.

Writing popular and successful rhyming picture books requires at least double the skill, a wing, a prayer, plenty of pig-headed determination and a backbone of steel for dealing with all the editing, let alone handling the rejections.

So how do you acquire those skills? And how do you learn to tell the difference between top quality verse and terrible rhyme? The answer is straightforward, but getting there isn’t easy. You work, hard. 


You pick every word with consideration. You edit your own work ruthlessly and tirelessly. If there even might be a better alternative, you chuck out your favourite line and try a new one.

You keep all of the following in mind at every stage: plot, character, sense and logic, age appropriateness, commercial appeal, rhythm, timing, accent and pronunciation, syllables, stresses, emotional arcs, story beats, universality, originality, overall word count, word count per page, page turns, potential changes of scene in the illustrations… There’s more, but that’s enough to be going on with. 

You write and you rewrite, over and over and over again, taking all of the above into consideration along the way. If you don’t, it will show. Nothing is more obvious than inexperienced (or lazy, but I’ll give you all the benefit of the doubt) writing. 

To make it simple, let’s just take the most basic step — rhyming. The inexperienced writer finds the first rhyming word and tells herself, “That’ll do”. This might lead to the occasional happy result (for example Spaghetti with the Yeti, a lovely rhyming book cleverly crafted by Charlotte and Adam Guillain), but by and large it will force your story to take a particular and constrictive path. 

If you’ve ever tried writing in rhyme, you’ll know what I mean. When you pick a word just and only because it rhymes, the verse is leading you. To master writing rhyming picture books, you need to keep working until the opposite becomes true. 

Through hard work, you will learn how to control the words, and not be led by them. Here’s an admittedly silly example.

You come up with a line that you like. Let’s say it goes,

A mouse took a swim in a deep, dark pond.

I like that, you think to yourself, whatever happens next, that line’s a keeper. Now I just need to think of something that rhymes with pond…

A mouse took a swim in a deep, dark pond.

He said to himself, “What might be beyond?”

That works, you kid yourself. The grammar’s questionable, but it’s a solid rhyme, and it seems to bounce along okay. I reckon I can get away with it.

No, you can’t, it’s rubbish. No one speaks like that, so your character instantly sounds inauthentic. And the next bit now has to be about what’s beyond the pond, so your plot is being dictated by the rhyme, too. 

The experienced writer will stop here and start over. But starting again is hard work and raises lots of difficult questions. Who is the mouse? Would a mouse really swim? Why? Might a different character and setting work better? Does that opening line sound oddly familiar? etc., etc.

But what the heck, you’ve made two lines rhyme, and that feels like a solid start. Onwards! Although… it’s getting hard to find rhymes for ‘pond’. Not to worry, there’s always

Bond. Fond. Frond. Wand…

Ooh, a wand — he could be a MAGIC mouse, that might be fun. Look at me, I’m writing in rhyme!

A mouse took a swim in a deep, dark pond.

He said to himself, “What might be beyond?”

So he swapped his swimming trunks for a magic wand.

And he waved it around, then his hair turned blonde.

You;’re only four lines in and, because the verse has led you and not the other way around, you’ve already made several rods for your back. 

The rhythm is clunky and the beat is off. You’ve created a weird aquatic mouse with clothing and hair. You’ve also made him magical, for no reason other than the rhyme suggested it, and now you have to write a story about him rescuing his barnet. This is nonsense — and not in a good way. Can you imagine a whole story this bad? Line after line of poorly crafted, ill-conceived non-story? 

Those of us working in publishing don’t have to imagine them, we get sent them all the time.

A skilled writer will not let the rhyme lead them. They will not remain so wedded to a line that they sacrifice sense, rhythm, logic — and the rest.

A skilled writer will grab the reins and force the story to work, and work flawlessly, so that the rhymes are so neat, so carefully chosen and constructed that you barely even notice they’re there. 

The reader won’t be left questioning the choice of character or their journey, because the story will make perfect sense. When read aloud, it will cast a spell over the room. It might bounce and invigorate, or comfort and calm, and it will resolve in the most satisfying way. 

No clunkiness. No raised eyebrows. No double takes. No words that only work when read aloud in a certain accent. No made up words (unless you’re Dr. Seuss). No blonde mice. Just a great story that would stand up just as well if you rewrote it in prose — which skilled writers are often required to do.

Writing in rhyme is enormous fun and I would encourage anyone to give it a go. But please think twice before submitting i t as finished work. Have you really finished, or have you only just begun?

Michelle Robinson 

Michelle is the author of many picture books, including Lollies award-winning Ten Fat Sausages, illustrated by Tor Freeman. Her books have been read and sold all over the world, and even on the International Space Station. She is still learning to write flawless rhyme. 


Twitter: @MicheRobinson

Instagram: @MichelleRobinsonBooks


Pippa Goodhart said...

Such a good demonstration of the pitfalls offered by aiming for a writing text! I've just posted a link to this blog for my students to read as they have a go at writing a picture (in just a week - not easy!). Thanks, Michelle.

Michelle Robinson said...

Thanks, Pippa, I hope it's useful to them!

Zoe Arena said...

Brilliantly written! I wrote a rhyming story about a fish that couldn’t swim once. Looking forward to an upcoming session with you, Michelle! (via Golden Egg!). Thank you!

Alan said...

What's all that about, then? This is a great article, Michelle. I'll definitely share it with my course participants!

Michelle Robinson said...

Thanks, Alan. I wonder if the Spam bot has spammed in rhyme...?

The Book Munchkin said...

Love the examples ... can't wait to see what that soggy mouse does next! Ha, ha!

Momo said...

Thank you SO much for this wonderful piece. I have shared your thoughtful comments with my colleagues here in Australia.

SAHR said...

Awesome! I love the "only just begun." I found your article inspiring and part challenge... Even if that wasn't your intent! Thank you!