Tips for aspiring writers and illustrators

Mountain, by James FoleyMany people want to have their work published. Making it happen is (usually) not easy. The challenge can seem overwhelming and insurmountable. But many people have done it before.

I’ve pulled together some links, books and tips to help you on your journey.


The following websites have many useful tips for aspiring writers and illustrators.

Hazel Edwards’ webpage for aspiring writers.
She’s a multi-award-winning treasure of the Australian industry and she’s pulled together some amazing information on her site.

Michael Wagner’s Writing Tips.
Another Australian writer and a very funny, very lovely man. He’s pulled together a great collection of tips- some are his own, and some he’s collected from other writers.

Shaun Tan’s Advice for New Illustrators.
He’s the man.

Reading List

I’ve found these books very helpful in learning more about picture books and illustration:

  • Making Picture Books by Libby Gleeson
  • The Encyclopedia of Writing and Illustrating Children’s Books by Desdemona McCannon et al
  • Children’s Picturebooks: the Art of Visual Storytelling by Martin Salisbury and Morag Styles. This reads like a textbook – it gives a fascinating history of picture books and looks at key concepts and practices of the artform. Get this one if you’re super passionate about the medium.
  • Show me a Story: Why Picture Books Matter. Conversations with 21 of the World’s Most Celebrated Illustrators by Leonard Marcus. This gives some insights into the work practices of Mo Willems, Maurice Sendak, Quentin Blake, Helen Oxenbury, Eric Carle and many others.

And these books are great for addressing the fear that gets in the way of making good art:

  • The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity by Julia Cameron. It’s a self-help book for recovering creatives. Cameron talks a bit about God in it which I didn’t gel with, but I did like the focus on mindfulness and personal growth. The book helped me get out of a really big funk and changed my life.
  • Art and Fear: Observation on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles and Ted Orland.
  • Walking on Alligators: A Book of Meditations for Writers by Susan Shaughnessy.


Tips on getting started

    • Most importantly – Persistence. It takes years to get your illustration and writing to a professional level. Some very talented people don’t make it because they give up half-way. Those who stick at it will see their work improve a little each day, until years later the differences are glaringly obvious. Keep trying. Make improvement your goal, not publication. When your work is of a professional standard, publication is more likely.
    • Read picture books. Go to a library, sit in the children’s section and spend an afternoon reading as many books as you can. Which authors do you love? Which illustrators? Find all their books and read. Which publishers release books that are similar in tone to your ideas? Jot down their contact details.
    • Join the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators. This organisation gave me the collegial support and contacts I needed to break into the industry. There are SCBWI chapters all over the world.
    • Go to writers’ festivals and conferences. Learn about your craft, and learn about the industry. If there are critiques available, get one, get two even.
    • Join a critique group, or start one. Ignore nasty unconstructive criticism and accept positive constructive criticism.
    • Have a writing/illustrating buddy who you trust with your work, who will give you completely honest feedback, who won’t just tell you what they think you want to hear.
    • Build a support network. Support your fellow writers and illustrators, and let them support you. Share each other’s trials and successes. This can be lonely work, and it is extremely helpful to have friends who understand what it’s like to do this job.

If you’re in the land Down Under you could also:


Tips on doing the work

    • Read your own manuscripts out aloud to yourself. If a sentence is hard to say, change it so that it becomes pleasurable or fun to say. Picture books are meant to be read out aloud. Except for the ones that don’t have words which can be really awesome too (see Moonlight and Sunshine by Jan Ormerod, or The Arrival by Shaun Tan).
    • Read picture books out aloud to children. Notice how some texts are easy to read and others are clunky.
    • Type out the texts of picture books. Study them. What makes them work?
      If you don’t like the text, why not? What would you change?
    • Have a balance between text and pictures. Sometimes the illustration will be more effective for a particular scene, and you can reduce the text. Sometimes the text is more important and you can simplify the illustration.
      In picture books for more sophisticated readers, the words and pictures don’t even have to agree. You might be able to get a stronger meaning across on a particular page if your text is saying one thing and your picture is saying another.
    • Use colour and point-of-view purposefully. Consider what you want the reader to feel when they look at your illustrations. If you’re going for fun and lively, go for colours and viewpoints that suit this mood. If it’s suspense you want, then pick dramatic and moody colours and viewpoints. Don’t necessarily use the first viewpoint you come up with. Try out other options, see what works best.
    • “Kill Your Darlings”. Sometimes you’ll have a paragraph of text or a character design or even a whole story that you love to bits. But it doesn’t work, and you can’t figure out why. In these cases, ‘kill your darling’: get rid of the bit you’re hanging on to the tightest, and see if the story will work better without it. In the end, do what serves the story best.
      Good luck on your creative journey, and in summary (because these two phrases seem to have cropped up a lot):
  1. Learn as much as you can, and keep learning.
  2. Do what serves the story best.

Author: James Foley

James Foley makes children’s books for children who read books. If you’re a child and you’re eating his books, you’re doing it wrong. His books include Brobot, Dungzilla, Gastronauts, Chickensaurus, Toffle Towers, My Dead Bunny and There's Something Weird About Lena. James lives in Perth with his wife, 2 kids, and a labrador. He is a massive Marvel movie nerd and comes from a long line of queuing enthusiasts. Follow him on FB/twitter/insta/youtube @jamesfoleybooks, or at .

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