3 Query Tips Every Editor Hopes you Forget

Anyone who has submitted a manuscript–from published pro to the first timer–knows the feeling that sets in the second you click “send” on the query letter email. Anxiety takes hold almost immediately. Did I miss a typo? Will she like it? Will she think my letter is too short, or too long? Maybe I should have read it one more time…

Who knows? Every editor’s taste is different. One may prefer YA realism to fantasy. Another may appreciate high-concept middle grade over school tales and picture books. Some editors only publish fiction or non-fiction. But we all agree that a thoughtful pitch is the best way to garner attention no matter the genre.

So as your finger trembles over the SEND button, try to keep these things in mind:

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UN-Monday: Ursula Nordstrom’s 5 tips for writing for children

The road to publication is long and filled with missteps and restarts. No one understood that better than Harper’s venerable children’s book editor, Ursula Nordstrom. Her correspondence, so thoughtfully curated in DEAR GENIUS (Marcus, 1998), is filled with revision advice for writers at every level of their careers.

In her September 27, 1961 letter to Fred Gipson, author of the Newbery Honor-winning young novel Old Yeller, she outlines five tips for writing books for children. In her note to Gipson, they are meant to help him expand and adapt an adult short story into a possible work for child readers. However, they are a nearly accidental road map for writers of young fiction, genius in their simplicity. I’ve even created a PDF below! Click UN’s list and download it to hang on the wall of your Writing Batcave.

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UN-Monday: Why does it take so long to publish a book?

Editors rarely feel like they have enough time with a manuscript.


Image courtesy Dasha Tolstikova

There is so much to do. Developmental editing comes first–working with the author to make sure the story is the best it can be. Does it build tension from the beginning? Is it engaging throughout? Does the ending leave the reader feeling differently than when she began? Is she satisfied? Curious? Left to wonder about herself or the world in a new way? What about illustrations? Who should illustrate? Which artist is best for this particular story? In her May 4, 1955 note to Janice May Udry, UN offers us a glimpse into why the editorial  process is arduous and lengthy.

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Un-Monday: Ursula Nordstrom on how to create a picture book dummy

image credit: Dasha Tolstikova

Ursula Nordstrom/image credit: Dasha Tolstikova

This week’s Un-Monday post is inspired by my good friend Paula Yoo, an incredibly talented screenwriter and *picturebook author extraordinaire. Over on her website, she’s gearing up to host her seventh annual picturebook writing smackdown: NaPiBoWriWee (National Picture Book Writing Week). From May 1-May 7 of this year, mortals all over the world will be transformed in to pen-wielding heroes, cranking out seven picture books in just seven days! Sure, it’s completely insane, but that’s what makes it so productive and popular. Under that kind of time constraint, you can’t over-think your work, you just have to get it down on the page. Intrigued? Terrified? Well, you’re on your way. Those are excellent reasons to dive head-first into a week-long writing intensive.

I’ll be guest blogging at and offering up advice and tips on how to start and finish those projects next week. In the meantime, if you’re braving a picturebook for the first time, I wanted to share Ursula Nordstom’s notes to John Steptoe, on the importance of emotion in the early stages of writing in this format, and her advice to him on how to create a picture book dummy.


From: DEAR GENIUS, edited by Leonard Marcus


From: DEAR GENIUS, edited by Leonard Marcus

Whether you’re an author or an illustrator, putting your work in the 32-page format as you develop it can be an invaluable tool for crafting compelling page turns and leaving room in the text for the art to tell story, too. One simple example of this is color. Rather than wasting valuable words on visual details (the best picture books are spare with modest word counts) let the illustrations carry some of that storytelling.

For further reading in advance of NaPiBoWriWee, check out Uri Shulevitz’s classic work on  picture book making:

and Molly Bang’s fabulously revealing summary of how shapes, position and color inform meaning in picturebooks.

*Note: I spell “picturebook” as one word. I share the philosophy that these books are an art form unto themselves and deserve to be recognized as such.