Monday 22 May 2023

Who has read your picture book? By Chitra Soundar

It’s a somewhat misleading stereotype to say writers work in isolation. When you work in isolation – you write, write, and write some more, put away your writing, then read it and edit what you’ve written. And the first person who sees your text is your agent or your editor. 

Is that healthy? And even if it, is it practical? Many writers don’t have agents or long-standing relationship with editors – so if they write a text in isolation – how do they know it’s good enough to be sent out to the world? To a publisher or agent?

Writers especially picture book writers will always benefit from feedback. The words available to tell a story are limited. And when you write in isolation, you cut and cut and cut and perhaps lose the meaning of the story. Or you’ve overwritten and you can’t see it. 

Then, what kind of feedback should writers seek and where will this feedback come from? In early stages of our writing careers, it’s perhaps ok to share a text with a non-writing friend or a partner or our parents and ask, “What do you think?”

The response to that question often can be, “this is great!” It actually means, we love you, but we have no clue whether we like it or not. Or it can be – an elaborate discussion about how war and peace was written and you feel the feedback doesn’t actually fit the medium you’re working on.

Listen to Neil Gaiman's experience of his first workshop group!

Picture book writers (like all other writers) must find a tribe – like-minded writers and illustrators who are immersed in the craft of telling stories to young children. From this tribe, you kind of form a workshop group or critique group – this could be a group of friends who are all writing picture books and want to improve their craft. 

Often you will form a tribe and meet such friends either by doing a course formally in an institute or university or meeting them in writer gatherings within organisations like SCBWI

When I started writing at first, even Google had been invented (oops, you know I’m really old now), but the Internet was and I found a group online. Slowly I gathered people around me and formed a group of writers who met in person. 

My current group formed organically by being part of a writers’ group and slowly gravitating towards people who want to write picture books and are also looking for a group. Friends first, workshop group second! 

Let’s assume you’ve found two or three people (five in a group is maximum I would think), here are some pointers on how to get your work critiqued and how to harness the power of feedback.

1. Meet regularly – that doesn’t have to be weekly, but monthly is a great way to be on top of your writing and giving yourself an achievable deadline. 

2. Write regularly something new that can be discussed in the group. That doesn’t mean each meeting you should bring a new piece of work – but if over 12 months you’re writing the same picture book, either that story needs isn’t working or it needs to be put away for a bit for everyone to gain perspective. It’s a good idea to alternate 2-3 picture books through the meetings – that way within a year you have 2-3 finished picture books you can then share with an agent or publisher. 

3. Take the meetings seriously and prepare for it. Proofread your text, don’t take it too early to your group – write it a few times, see how far you can take it on your own and then take it to your group. 

4. Ask for specific feedback – tell your group what you’re looking for – like I can’t seem to make the ending work or something’s wrong in the rhyme sequence – it is good to ask for specific help along with the overall feedback your group will provide. 

5. Listen when feedback is given. Don’t get defensive, don’t get upset. Often the feedback points to the symptoms and not to the root cause. Listen, take notes, take down everyone’s suggestions. Then when you go back to your desk the next day, think through what everyone said and understand the “note” under the note. Follow each feedback like a thread in the maze – it might lead you to the actual problem in the text. 

Having a good workshop / critique group will make your work stronger. Sharing with like-minded people who are immersed in the craft will elevate your work.

A common myth
about workshop is the fear that someone will steal your idea. This is why you first get to know the group, be part of a community before you form a workshop group. Creatives respect work by others. Secondly no one can that easily copy an idea and make it their own. And often someone possibly is also working on a similar idea before you even met them.

But if you find someone is doing this a lot or always jumping on someone’s idea (and yes, it has happened to me, once or twice), report to your moderator or leader of the group. If that doesn’t work or not possible, leave the group politely. Once trust is lost, it’s hard to be open and creative. But by and large, most groups are fun, supportive and are your co-travellers on the journey. They will come to your book launch when your book is published and they will cheer your success. 

Apart from critique groups, here are some other ways of getting feedback on your text:

1. Ask a writer friend to read it as a one-off (and return the favour when they need a reader). 

2. Seek out a professional editor / mentor who can give feedback. Usually there will be a fee involved. 

3. Take your story into a school for read-aloud – local school or your kids’ school etc – but remember this feedback is not as reliable – but you will be able to gauge the interest level of the children listening to the story – are they fidgeting, are they interested, did they ask you to read it again? 

4. Seek out professional readers / agents / editors during conferences – usually there is a fee involved for this too.  And these are usually very short conversations. But you will get invaluable feedback on the commercial potential of your story too. 

5. Join a course – run by a reputed organisation or writer – usually courses involve some feedback sessions for the stories you write on the course. Also, it gives you an opportunity to establish a workshop group with the people you’ve met on the course. 

Are you in a workshop/critique group? What works and what doesn't? Share your tips in the comments section! 

Chitra Soundar is an internationally published, award-winning author of children’s books and an oral storyteller. Chitra regularly visits schools, libraries and presents at national and international literary festivals. She is also the creator of The Colourful Bookshelf, a curated place for books for children by British authors and illustrators.  

 Find out more at and follow her on twitter here and Instagram here.

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