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23 May 2024

My journey to editing children’s books

I think of myself as an accidental editor. It was never part of my grand plan to work in publishing. However, like many parents, once I had children and could enjoy magical times reading with them, I thought I’d try writing for young readers. Several rejections later, I began to work with a small publisher and was commissioned to write picture books for the pre-school age group, and stories and resources for 7-to-11-year-olds. This became the unwitting gateway to my editorial career.

At first, I took on small proofreading jobs from my publisher on a freelance basis. Through research into how to find editorial work, I discovered Louise Harnby. Her book, Marketing Your Editing and Proofreading Business, became my springboard into the publishing profession. I took the Publishing Training Centre (PTC)’s course (then called ‘Basic Proofreading’ and now ‘Essential Proofreading’), and made the leap.

(By the way, if you plan to follow suit, don’t let the course titles fool you. The training is anything but ‘basic’. It’s in-depth, rigorous and tough, but is all the more excellent for that.)

The craft of editing children’s books

I see editing as a craft. Copy-editing is not just about implementing grammatical rules. For me, it’s about ‘hearing’ the text; listening to its rhythm. The action taking place can be reflected in the way the words describe that action. Short, sharp sentences help to convey suspense, for instance. They work to increase the pace of a story. A variety of sentence lengths also adds interest for the reader. Without shorter sentences to balance longer ones, the experience of reading a book can become monotonous.

Because I’d been writing for children, specialising in editing children’s books seemed a natural progression. For this, as with editing generally, I believe you need a good ear. I could never edit in a room with anyone else because I read every sentence aloud. That’s the way I get a proper feel for how the book will sound to its readers. I find this invaluable, whatever genre I’m working in, and it’s something I advise authors to do with their own writing. When you hear the words, rather than just looking at them on the page or screen, you’re much more likely to pick up glitches.

This is especially true if you write or edit rhyming picture books. I’ve worked on many of these, and getting the rhythm right across the whole story is key to creating the best possible reader experience. It’s also the biggest challenge with this type of writing and brings us back to why, as an editor, you need a good ear – to be able to hear what’s working and what isn’t.

Children’s publishing also has its own parameters. Both authors and editors need to understand the requirements for the target age group. That may sound obvious – age appropriateness of material encompasses not just themes and storylines, but writing style, sentence length and vocabulary choices. Editing children’s books means appreciating the age suitability of all these elements and pointing out where they don’t quite fit.

Picture books require a fairly stringent editorial approach. A story has to be told in few words – 800 to 1,000 is the ideal in the UK. Every word has to count. If an adjective isn’t necessary, it can be cut. (Description is largely redundant in a picture book because the illustrations support the visual aspects of the story.) Adverbs can be replaced with verbs that describe the action. There are always ways to create succinctness of expression and greater fluidity. This is the craft of editing and it applies to any genre.

My top tip for aspiring children’s editors

For editors wanting to enter the world of children’s publishing, my biggest tip would be the same as it is for authors: read. Read as great a variety of children’s books for the different age groups as you can. Pay attention to the structure, the chosen themes and storylines, the vocabulary, the sentence length. When you’re steeped in the art of brilliant, targeted story-writing, those elements will be at the front of your mind as you edit; as you craft.

I’ve met and worked with the most fabulous people since I started my editorial business, and it’s expanded in ways I could never have dreamed of. I cohost The Pen to Published Podcast for self-publishing authors, with colleague and independent publisher Alexa Whitten. We also run an online Facebook group for writers, The Writers’ Refinery, which has grown into a lively, informative and supportive community.

For an accidental career, being an editor has turned into something surprising and special.

Alexa Tewkesbury

Alexa Tewkesbury is an award-winning author of numerous children’s books, as well as a freelance proofreader, copy-editor and copywriter. Follow her on X and LinkedIn.

If you are interested in a career in children’s books, download the PTC’s free guide to Children's Publishing.