EDITING: How do you know when a story is finished? by Clare Helen Welsh

EDITING: How do you know when a story is finished?

I knew I wanted my final Write Mentorpost of 2019 to be about editing, unpicking the question; How do you know when your story is finished?

But it isn’t an easy one to answer.

Storytelling is a naturally organic process. When we tell stories aloud, we often tweak words and details to suit different audiences and to maximise impact. This suggests we might go on tweaking a text FOREVER if we could! Of course, that isn’t possible in a book. At some point, there needs to be a ‘final version.’ But how do you know when you’ve got it?

It’s hard to achieve objectivity when you’ve put your heart and soul into a piece of writing. We’re often too close to spot what needs cutting/ tweaking/ adding. This makes editing a text and knowing when to submit it, problematic.

So I asked some picture book friends what tips and tricks they use to answer the question; when is my picture book ready to submit?


Alison Donald;

Picture book author, Alison Donald. @alisondonald7

You know your picture book is ready when;

  • you’ve had a few trusted critique partners check it over
  • you’ve read it aloud many times
  • you’ve rewritten and edited. But most importantly…
  • …it’s ready when you’ve double checked that your concept has a unique selling point or strong hook.’


Fiona Barker;

Picture book author, Fiona Barker @FI_BGB

‘Getting critique group feedback is key. They’ll have lots of comments on my first draft and then successively fewer on subsequent versions. When I start to get comments only on individual words rather than the concept/story arc then I know I’m close. I’d say it’s when it gets to the stage when I’m worrying about single words or individual sentence structure. Or if I’ve been round in a circle and come back to where I started!’


And after you’ve done that, Emma Perry suggests…

Picture book author, Emma Perry @_EmmaPerry

“Remember, that after all that work you’ve put into your picture book script it really does deserve a rest. A nice comfy rest with no disturbances! Try leaving your text tucked safely away in a drawer, for as long as you can bear it. They’ll thank you for it. I promise. When you dive back in, you’ll be reading your words with fresh eyes, with the eyes of a reader – giving you a valuable new perspective.”

In addition to the above, I also recommend reading your text against a criteria of ten things all good picture books need. Consider these things carefully before you submit. They might help you to be more self- reflective:


  1. The text is double-spaced and in a clear font. It is formatted over 12 spreads (optional)
  2. By spread 3, there is a fully-developed and like-able character, with a clear conflict or problem to solve
  3. The story is interspersed with authentic dialogue and exchanges between characters
  4. The plot has a mid-narrative surprise/ climax at spread 9
  5. The writing isn’t unnecessarily descriptive and leaves room for the illustrations. The story is under the 500 word limit
  6. The voice may be humorous, playful, delicate or subtle, but is enjoyable to read aloud
  7. The story is written with emotion
  8. The protagonist is instrumental in solving their own problem and the story is empowering to children
  9. The ending ties up all loose story threads and leaves the reader feeling satisfied
  10. And last, but by no mean least…(In fact, it’s probably THE MOST IMPORTANT POINT of all…) The story has a unique concept appropriate for the age range and is marketable worldwide


Editing can be a tricky and frustrating part of the picture book process, but it can also be fun and incredibly satisfying when you succeed.

There might be value in making a paper or digital dummy book of your text. At the very least, listen to someone reading it aloud. Do they read it with the same emphasis and meaning you intended? If this isn’t possible, use the ‘Read Aloud’ function on your computer (Great for spotting typos!) Reading your manuscript alongside another picture book or a mentor text might also be helpful.

I generally believe there is no such thing as ‘perfect.’ It’s not a helpful standard to aim for. But when writing and submitting picture books (or any kind of book) your words need to be as near close to the ‘P word’ as possible. Hopefully, the tips in this post will help. (Thank you Alison, Fiona and Emma!)


One last thought for 2019…

But do remember that whilst we need to be critical of our work in order to push ourselves and to make progress, don’t be afraid to create work that is flawed and imperfect at the start. First drafts are exactly that… drafts. They aren’t supposed to be perfect. Be willing to fail, learn from your mistakes and start over. Learn some skills and techniques to develop your confidence.  The more you do, the better you’ll get.


For those writers interested in creating standout picture books, Clare will be running a six week online picture book course with WriteMentor, in which she touches on how to grow your picture book concepts, plotting, voice and editing. Subscribe to the WriteMentor newsletter for more details. Clare is also a #WriteMentor tutor and will be running a day of workshops at our WriteMentor Weekend in Exeter, perfect if you’re looking to develop your writing and storytelling skills and/or if you’re wanting to polish a manuscript for submission.

Clare is a children’s writer and primary school teacher from Devon. She writes fiction and non-fictionpicture book texts – sometimes funny and sometimes lyrical. Her first book was published in 2015, and she currently has books in development with Little Tiger Press, Quarto, Andersen, Nosy Crow and MacMillan.Clare also runs a manuscript critique service. Please see her website for more details: www.clarehelenwelsh.com @ClareHelenWelsh

Clare also runs our Online Picture Book course and is our Writer-in-residence, running workshops and webinars for our Hub members.


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