Updated: Sep 19
New picture book writers hear this all the time:
“Don’t write in rhyme! It’s really hard to do, and it has to be perfect to sell.”
Done right, rhyme writing and rhyming stories can make picture book magic...
...but it's true - you have to know (or learn!) what you're doing. If you’re new to the writing world, you might not know what perfect rhyme looks like. You might not even know what you’re doing wrong!
Below, you’ll find a list of common rhyme crimes to avoid in your picture book manuscript. Check for each one to make sure you're safe from the Rhyme Police, and on your way to writing a bestseller!
5 Rhyme Writing Mistakes to Avoid:
⚠️ Getting Off With A Warning
Like jaywalking or littering, these are rhyme writing crimes of carelessness. Some readers may not even notice, and if you do get caught, you might be able to flutter your eyelashes and get off with a warning. But, if you really want your story to shine, it’s best to avoid these crimes altogether.
▪️ Relying on Near or Slant Rhymes
Near or slant rhymes are words that almost rhyme, but not quite.
Examples: time, limes
If you are at least halfway through a poem or story and have managed to maintain perfect rhyme and meter up to that point, you MIGHT be able to get away with a near rhyme. But they should be used VERY rarely and only if there’s absolutely no other choice.
▪️ Only Using Boring/Basic Rhymes
You need to get your story from point A to point B and well…this is the easiest, fastest way to get there.
Examples: sat, cat, bat
no, go, row
fit, it, sit
Obviously, you’re going to use these types of rhymes sometimes, but if your entire manuscript is ONLY made up of these, your reader is going to get bored fast.
What takes rhyme from good to great is the unexpected! Rhyme single syllable words with multi-syllable ones. Rhyme phrases with single words. Use clever puns that make the reader smile. Don't settle for the first rhyme that works.
While near rhymes and boring rhymes might not land you in the literary slammer, these next two rhyme crimes are a bit more obvious. Commit these crimes, and you are bound to get caught.
▪️ Letting the Rhyme Drive The Story
This happens when a writer is so focused on rhyming that they forget the story they were trying to tell in the first place.
Like...when your main character is in a “car”…and because it rhymes…they suddenly end up at a “bar.” Not a good look for a children’s book.
Or when you’re trying to rhyme with “seen” and suddenly you're telling us that grass was very "green." Which is not critical information.
To avoid committing this crime, make sure you have a clear plan for your story before you begin writing. And ask yourself if EVERY word is adding value to the story...or just completing a rhyme.
▪️ Using Forced Rhyme
If your story suddenly sounds like it was written by Yoda, you might be committing this common rhyme crime.
The robber and his partner
Drove off in a cloud of dust,
And Sheriff Spencer chased them, shouting,
“Catch those crooks, I must!”
Unless Sheriff Spencer is in a Shakespearian play, he probably isn't going to talk that way. Make sure you’re not so desperate for a rhyme that you force it, by rearranging a phrase in an unnatural way. Your reader will notice!
There's really only one rhyme crime I can think of that qualifies as a felony. This is one that you just can't sweet talk your way out of.
▪️ Not Following A Consistent Meter
What makes a rhyming picture book so much fun to read, isn’t actually the rhyme itself, at all. It’s the meter. Meter is the rhythm or beat of a poem. It’s created through the patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables in a verse of rhyming poetry. And it’s essential to a rhyming story's success.
A basic way to tell if your poem has a solid, established meter is to see if you can clap to it. Like a song with a good beat, a poem with good meter should be easy to clap along to.
For example, here’s a verse from my Christian children’s book “God Made You Too.” Read it out loud and try to clap or tap along to the beat:
The God who built the universe,
Who hung stars in the sky,
The one who spins the planets round,
And makes the comets fly,
The God who formed the depths of space,
For us to gaze into,
Saw that his work was not quite done,
And so He made YOU too!
And now, here’s a much earlier version without an established meter. Try to clap along to this one and see how hard it is!
The God who built outerspace,
And scattered the stars up high,
The God who makes the planets spin,
And sends comets speeding through the sky.
The God who created the galaxy,
For us to stare into,
Realized that his work wasn’t quite done,
And he created you too!
Notice, the rhymes are fine! It’s the meter or rhythm that’s making this difficult to read out loud. And reading out loud is what children’s books are meant for!
Obviously, there's more to perfect meter than clapping. It can take months or even years of practice to master meter well enough to publish. But, there are lots of great resources out there that can help.
But I see these rhyme crimes all the time in published books! How do those authors get away with it?
Dr. Seuss was the king of basic, boring rhymes. And you're sure to come across examples of the occasional rhyme crime in popular published books.
But here's the thing...and I say this as kindly as possible...you are NOT Dr. Seuss.
Presumably, if you are reading this, you are just starting out trying to get your first children's book published. So, you just can't break the rules yet and get away with it. (And if you're self-publishing, the market is so competitive that it's even more important for your work to stand out from the crowd.)
Every time you commit one of these crimes in your rhyme writing, you're adding another barrier to publication; you're giving that acquiring editor or agent another reason to say, "No."
So, stay on the straight and narrow. And before you know it, you'll get that "Yes!"
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