ILLUSTRATION FEATURE Critique Groups for Illustrators

Critique groups are one of the best ways writers and illustrators can support each other's projects, but how do they work for illustrators? Picture book writer-illustrator Alina Surnaite shares her experiences. 

Early in 2018, I attended an open face-to-face critique session of an existing SCBWI Picture Book Critique Group in Cambridge. Thanks to this great opportunity and the encouragement of our Central-East co-ordinator Debbie Edwards, I decided to become a part of a new critique group together with four other members soon afterwards. I am glad to share a few things I learned about critique groups during this time.

There are different types of critique groups. Some have only writers, others only illustrators, but there are also mixed groups with writer-illustrators and writers. The groups may choose to critique Young Adult, Middle Grade or Picture Book work and occasionally all three of them in one group. Since my main interest is creating picture books, I asked to join a group with members who only write and/or illustrate picture books. Sometimes I may share only the text of my story and character sketches, other times I share my storyboard or a dummy book with a few finished illustrations. It is helpful to get feedback at different stages of the creative process.

I did have some concerns before joining a SCBWI Picture Book Critique Group for writers and illustrators, such as sharing a work in progress with people I did not know yet or not being able to offer much feedback to writers in the group. Illustrators offer support on the technical side of illustrating as well as ideas on how to improve a story and characters. I am lucky to have three illustrators in my group, but I also appreciate having a picture book writer who helps with the writing, especially since English is my second language. If you are not writing stories and are interested only in illustrating, it might be a good idea to join an illustrator-only critique group in your area or start one yourself with the help of your SCBWI network co-ordinator.

Cambridge West critique group members in one of our critique sessions

Building trust among your critique group members takes time so it is best if you join a group with people you know well or have met before. Two of my critique group members are fellow graduates from the MA in Children's Book Illustration and it was reassuring to have someone I already knew. It could be exciting to join a critique group with people you don't know yet, but quite challenging and overwhelming if you are an introvert. Starting with fewer members can be helpful and you can later invite more people to your group.

My critique group meets up monthly for face-to-face critique sessions. We submit our work by email and write the feedback in advance to share in person at the critique sessions. Critiquing others' work can be quite time-consuming. You have to make sure you give back as much as you receive in terms of feedback so everyone makes an equal contribution in the group. It might be a good idea to limit the number of members in the group to five or six. Being part of a smaller group could work better if getting mixed feedback overwhelms you.

 The main benefit of critique groups is receiving constructive feedback on your own work. This kind of feedback points out both the weaknesses and the strengths in your work. You also get used to the critique and editing process, which is inevitable in the publishing world. I tend to get too attached to my work and don't always know when to stop perfecting it so sharing my work regularly with my critique group helps me to look at it with fresh eyes and finish my projects.

Another benefit is that you learn a lot from providing critique to others' work. A critique group can offer different perspectives to your own, especially if you have members from different cultures and backgrounds. It can also inspire you in many ways such as seeing the members' commitment and passion. My critique group helped me build confidence in my writing and illustrating skills and start submitting my work to agents. I am glad I am not alone on this journey, thanks to SCBWI, as receiving rejections can be very discouraging.

As well as celebrating successes such as signing up with an agent, getting published or being selected in a competition, critique groups are wonderful for the moral support an illustrator gets when faced with creative blocks, rejections and self-doubt. Illustration is a solitary occupation and meeting up with fellow critique members is a perfect way of getting away from your studio.

My three latest picture books, finished thanks to my wonderful critique group

You can learn how critique groups work from fellow SCBWI members who attend them. Make sure you have a group moderator who organises critique sessions and manages any concerns that might arise in the group so all members are happy. Critique groups are a big commitment if you try to meet monthly face-to-face, which is not always possible and having an online session is a good option in such instances. Being part of a critique group can be very rewarding and encouraging, especially if you are just starting out in your career and need that extra support that SCBWI members can provide.

You can find guidance on critique groups on the SCBWI website, if you decide to join one, let your SCBWI network co-ordinator know about it and they should be able to help you. Good luck!


Alina Surnaite is a graduate of the MA Children's Book Illustration course at Cambridge School of Art and an SCBWI member, for which she organises events for writers and illustrators in Cambridge.
Twitter: @AlinaSurnaite

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