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How to Set Up Your Own Writers’ Workshop Critique Group and Up Your Writing Game

Children’s author, animation writer and writing coach Katy Segrove explains the value of writing workshop groups and uses some real-life critique examples to illustrate her advice

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Introduction by Chris Fielden

I'm a firm advocate of writing groups, and belong to three myself: Clockhouse London Writers, Stokes Croft Writers and the Authors of the Flash Fiction Challenges Facebook group. All these groups focus on different aspects of writing – market opportunities, specific genres, critiques, events and challenges designed to inspire and motivate creativity.

Stokes Croft Writers Group

Stokes Croft Writers, pictured at a storytelling event we ran at the Bath Fringe Festival

I chose this pic to show how fun writing groups can be, but we do look slightly frightening...

I've found all these things have helped me develop as a writer, but I think receiving constructive criticism, be it via groups or employing professional editors, has helped me develop more than anything else.

So, when Katy approached me about writing a post that shared her real-life experiences of setting up a writers' workshop group that offered members the opportunity to give and receive constructive criticism, I thought it was a great idea. She had clear examples to share of the success she'd enjoyed due to being a writing group member.

Pick Up Your Pen

In this post, Katy discusses the key points you need to consider when setting up a group. She also shares some 'before and after' examples of how receiving critiques on her work has helped her get books published and her stories adapted for TV.

As always, comments are welcome. Katy and I will do our best to reply in a timely fashion. You can find the comments form at the bottom of this page.

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How to Set Up Your Own Writers’ Workshop Critique Group and up Your Writing Game, by Katy Segrove

How Do You Improve Your Writing Skills?

How do you get better as a writer? How do you keep going without an editor or agent waiting to read your work? I reckon it has a lot to do with the right foundations. And for me, this means putting in place deadlines, accountability, feedback and support.

  • Deadlines and accountability give us the push we need to get our work finished.
  • Feedback helps us to move onto the next draft.
  • Support is, well, just necessary, because being a writer is tough at times.

One of the best ways to put these foundations in place is to set up your own writing workshop group.

I’m Katy – animation writer, children’s picture book author and the writing coach behind Pick Up Your Pen. I’ve been writing for 20 years and have built up a large portfolio of work, largely thanks to my own workshop group called The Writers’ Circle. I set up my group about 12 years ago, with friends made whilst doing an MA in screenwriting (and at other courses along the way) – and it’s still going strong to this day. We’re primarily screenwriters, but there’s also the odd playwright and novelist. The general idea behind this group would work well for writers of any medium because feedback is essential.

Writing Workshop Group

Katy (right), pictured with one of her writing groups

These are my people. We celebrate each other’s successes and commiserate when things aren’t going so well. We’re also dedicated to the goal of becoming better writers! Over the years, through this group, I’ve developed scripts for multiple short films, feature films, TV and animation ideas – and received feedback at every stage.

If you want to take your own writing seriously, I recommend setting up your own workshop group. It’s easier than it might sound. Here are some steps to take and questions to ponder if you want to give it a try.

Find Your People

Whether you’ve done an MA or just taken a class or two, you’ve hopefully made some writer friends along the way. Seek out writers who you get on with, obviously, but who are also committed and reliable. Those who turn up regularly, complete the writing tasks and are open to giving and receiving feedback. You want folk who are positive (not bitchy). Then, bring up the subject of setting up a workshop group together, once the course is over.

If you’re not taking an in-person class, participate in online courses or communities. For example, I run a monthly online writers' meetup, and a few of the group have recently decided to set up their own informal feedback group, which is wonderful. Here’s a link to my meetup group if you’re interested in checking it out.

London Writers' Meetup Group

You can also find potential feedback buddies through writer groups on Facebook or similar. Write a post declaring your interest in setting up a group. Arrange to have a chat with anyone who expresses interest to make sure you get along and are on the same wavelength.

For starters seek out 4-8 participants. Keep in mind that not everyone will be able to turn up to every session.

Choose Writers in Your Medium

It might sound obvious, but make sure your group is made up of writers working in the same medium as you – novelists, screenwriters, playwrights or poets etc. And stick with that one medium if you can. If you’re all writing in completely different mediums, the feedback will be less reliable.

Choose the Right Organiser

If you’re not the most organised person yourself, team up with someone who loves organising things. Someone needs to put together some dates and circulate them, send reminder emails, find out who’s attending and what they’re submitting and, if possible, keep an eye on timings on the day. Without good admin a group will fizzle out quickly.

Agree Logistics

Set and circulate dates in advance so that you have regular deadlines to aim for. We set our dates in January every year. Think about how often you want to meet. 6-8 weeks is our target and that works well for us.

When Do You Want to Meet?

Choose a day/time that works for everyone and stick to it. My group meets on a Saturday. But for those with families, this might not be ideal. Evening is an option, if everyone is working during the day, or a weekday might be preferable if participants are retired or work flexible hours. The workshops can be quite long and intense, so it’s worth considering if you’ll have the time and energy to meet at the end of the day.

Where Do You Want to Meet?

We have met at various places over the years. Sometimes in the café/bar at the London Southbank Centre, but it can get busy (and therefore noisy) especially as the day goes on. At other times we have met at my old workplace. It was a lovely old building in central London, and my bosses were kind enough to let me come in and use a room at the weekend, when no-one else was around. Can you find a quiet public venue that’s convenient for everyone (and free)? If not, how about each other’s homes? Or via Zoom?

How Much to Submit

If you’ve never been in a workshop before, this will need some thinking through. Here’s what we did…

We knew each other well and were all at roughly the same level of experience. We were also all pretty ambitious and committed to the workshopping process. So, for many years, we agreed to submit the whole piece of work. Whether it was a short outline, or a full-length screenplay, we submitted our complete work in progress. The reason being is that feedback is far more useful on the complete work, rather than just a segment of it. We also assumed that, even if we only submitted a short outline this time, later down the line we’d be submitting a full draft.

However, when some of the group started writing novels, that felt like a different kettle of fish. Firstly, novels usually take longer to complete, and you might want feedback as you go.

Secondly, they take much longer to read. So, we then changed the rules, to only allow 50 pages of a novel at a time.

Piles of paper

If you’re in the early stages of your writing life, and if you don’t know each other very well, start off by making things easy on yourself; don’t commit to reading too much every time. Otherwise, you could easily get fed up and burnt out.

Instead, consider something along these lines: Submit any length outline, up to 3 chapters of prose or 30 pages of script. And then go from there, revising the guidelines as you get to know each other better and get a sense of what works for you all.

It’s worth bearing in mind that you want to avoid resentment and keep the group meeting regularly. Reading several full-length works-in-progress is a big undertaking, plus, I generally read everything twice in order to be able to critique it properly. Keep it manageable.

Agree Your Deadline

Set a submission deadline in advance. Remember, you need to allow each other enough time to read the work and prepare your feedback (don’t attempt to do the reading on the day of the workshop).

Deadline

Our group started off with a deadline of 7 days before the meeting. But we later moved to 10 days prior to the meeting, to allow everyone enough time to fit all the reading (and thinking) in around their various schedules. These deadlines were circulated at the start of the year, along with the workshop dates.

Your workshop ‘organiser’ should send out a reminder of the deadline and workshop dates a week or so before the deadline and ask participants to RSVP with an idea of what they are submitting.

How Many Pieces of Work Will You Each Read?

We agreed to each read and critique 3 pieces of work per workshop. Any more than this, and the workload was too heavy. So, for us, a group of 4 participants was ideal. But if more people had work to submit and wanted to attend, we’d either split into 2 groups, or we’d just read some of the work.

Decide what’s realistic for you and make sure the workshop ‘organiser’ announces in advance who is reading what so that everyone gets a fair amount of feedback (and knows what they’re supposed to be reading).

Agree What Feedback Is Required

Do you want a written report? Just a verbal one? Or a verbal one plus handwritten notes on the manuscript itself?

A written report is useful, as it helps the person giving the feedback to properly think through their comments, rather than just talking off the top of their head. But they’re time consuming to prepare. Notes on the manuscript can be helpful but might be frustrating if the handwriting is poor. Also, if we write our notes as we’re reading the work for the first time, there can be a tendency to just write whatever is in our head – unfiltered – and that might be overly harsh and therefore hurtful to the author.

If you’re at the early stages of developing your idea and have only submitted a short outline, you might find it more helpful to brainstorm your idea as part of your allotted feedback time.

Also think about how long you will spend discussing each person’s work. We aimed for 1 hour per person.

How to Give Feedback

This is crucial, as it’s very easy to fall out with one another if feedback is given in the wrong way. We writers are sensitive souls.

On the one hand, if you only say nice things about each other’s work, it really won’t be very helpful. However, if you all launch in with an avalanche of criticisms, that will be overwhelming for the writer on the receiving end. Their ears will close, they’ll start hyper ventilating, they’ll leave the session hating the group, possibly never to return. They could even end up ditching their work in progress.

So, the key thing is to find a healthy balance.

Katy Critiquing

Some people talk about a ‘Feedback Sandwich’ – and I find this a helpful approach. This is where you start and end your feedback with positives and list the areas for improvement in the middle – in the most constructive way that you can manage.

Giving feedback is a bit of an art form and it takes practise. But to start with, it’s really important that participants are positive, tactful and thorough. The goal is to help one another become better writers. It won’t work too well if some of the group analyse the work in great detail, whereas others simply share a few meagre comments.

Some questions to consider when reading and critiquing other people’s work:

  • Who is this story about? What is their problem and why can’t they solve it?
  • Are the characters original enough? Are their motivations believable?
  • Is the story clear?
  • Does it have a clear structure? If not, does it matter?
  • What is original about this story and what is familiar?
  • Does it start in the right place? Too early or too late?
  • Is the ending satisfying?
  • Who or what is the antagonist?
  • What genre is it? Are the genre’s conventions being used? If they’re being broken, does it still work?
  • Is there a theme?

How Feedback Helped Me

My writing has improved so many times thanks to feedback. Here’s one specific example that has stayed in my mind.

A few years ago, I was developing a pre-school children’s animation series with a small production company. We’d had interest in the idea but couldn’t get a broadcaster to commit. So, we decided to try and get a picture book published to show all these interested parties a physical example of our characters, world and story – and hopefully get them to commission a TV series.

That was the plan. The problem was, I knew how to write screenplays, but I’d never written a picture book before. I had a few tries, but they weren’t that great. Picture books, it seems, are a lot trickier to write than you might think.

So, I decided to take a class.

Over the course of an intensive long weekend, we were given lots of writing exercises, including a theme: ‘Christmas!’ It was December, so it was very appropriate.

Throughout the 3-day course I came up with an idea that would work with my characters and my world; I developed it, wrote several versions and got feedback along the way. Without a doubt, my story improved with the help of feedback from the group and the tutor, who was a very experienced children’s author.

I went away with a 700-word picture book story I was pretty happy with. But I also had one final bit of feedback to ponder:-

“The story is charming, but the ending is rather anti-climactic. Something seems to be missing.”

The feedback wasn’t very specific or prescriptive, but it prompted me to ask a question: How can I make my ending stronger?

Questions are good for rewriting, because they plant little seeds in our brains that work away when we’re busy doing other things.

Question Marks

So, I took a few days to mull it over; I did a bit of brainstorming too. And at last, an idea came to me. I was thrilled! I’ll give you a brief excerpt of both versions, before and after editing it. But first, I’ll briefly summarise the idea.

My series idea is called Happy Go Hopscotch. It’s about a group of animal friends who go on little adventures together. And the theme is 'the science of happiness'. The aim is to teach kids how to improve their own happiness by changing their thoughts, habits and behaviour.

In my picture book story, called ‘Hopscotch and the Christmas Tree’, it’s Christmas Eve, and my group of animal friends don’t have a Christmas tree. They go in search of one, but can’t agree on what to buy. Big, short, fat or thin? They all want something different. They come home, at the end of a long day of searching, very despondent and without a tree. They go into the garden and eat some Christmas biscuits.

Here’s my original ending:

Just then, Hopscotch felt something tickling her back. She looked round and saw a branch, attached to a tree and they were standing underneath it.

She’d never paid much attention to this tree before. It wasn’t a Christmas tree, but it was dark green, and very pretty.

Her eyes lit up. She had an idea. "Let’s decorate this tree," she said.

Everyone thought this was a great idea. So with much excitement they brought out the box, with the lights and the tinsel, and they covered the tree with sparkle and colour.

They laughed and chattered, they sang and they danced, and everyone felt very happy about their very special Christmas tree.

Here’s my revised ending:

Just then, Hopscotch felt something tickling her back. She looked round and saw a long, wiggly branch.

It was just the old apple tree, with its bare, twisted branches and not a single leaf.

"Poor tree," she said. "It looks cold."

"And sad," added Ingrid.

"I’ll give it my scarf," said Malcolm, wrapping his woolly scarf round the trunk.

Suddenly Hopscotch had an idea and her eyes lit up. "Let’s decorate it!" she said. And everyone cheered.

With much excitement they brought out the box with the lights and the tinsel, and together they covered the tree with sparkle and colour.

They chattered, sang and danced around, and they all felt very lucky to have their own extra special Christmas tree.

It’s not vastly different, but the apple tree was a quirky addition that made all the difference. My ending had a powerful eco-friendly message about being less wasteful. But it also tied into my 'science of happiness' theme. If you’re feeling down about something, can you reframe it? Can you look at the same thing with fresh eyes? Doing so can quickly improve our mood and lower stress levels.

This small change was exactly what was needed.

Hopscotch and the Christmas Tree

I went to the London Book Fair a couple of months later, set up a few meetings with publishers, and found one who fell in love with my story and agreed to publish that same year – just in time for Christmas!

You can see the book on Amazon here.

It was published by Tiny Tree Books.

Author Katy Segrove with Illustrator Katerina Vykhodtseva

Katy Segrove (author) with Katerina Vykhodtseva (illustrator)

We then shared the book with broadcasters and got a commission from RTE Junior to make a 25-minute animated Christmas special of the book. I wrote the adaptation and the film turned out beautifully.

It premiered on RTE Junior over Christmas 2018 to wonderful reviews and went on to be nominated for Best Film and Best Animation at the Irish Animation Awards. The following year it was broadcast in multiple other countries around the world, as well as screening in 200 cinemas across France. In the UK it’s now available on Amazon Prime.

Pirouette et le Sapin de Noel

How My Feedback Has Helped Another Writer

A writer friend was applying to join the writing team of a production company and had to submit a 10-minute sample script, so she asked me to give her some feedback before sending in her work. I wrote most of my feedback directly onto the script, but I also had this comment to give:-

Well done, I think this is really nicely written. There are lots of lovely details in your descriptions, the language and dialogue feel really appropriate to the period, the story is short and clear and the drama is well set up, I think it works really well.

I have a few small comments, which I've added to the script. But this is one thing that jumped out at me – the section when it's revealed John hit Eliza – this seems to add a brand-new dimension to the story, and a very dramatic one, and it takes the focus away from Vera. It's really her story, but you change that focus to Eliza and John in these last few pages, so I would cut that and, instead, concentrate on John's plan to get Vera married off.

Feedback

She came back with this response:-

Thank you for your feedback. It was just what I was after, practical, insightful and fast. I agree with a lot of your points. The story is a tiny part of a much larger story that I’m developing… The domestic violence point was a set up for later on in the story. I’m glad that you picked that up as I’d got too close to the bigger story. When I re-draft it, I will put the focus back on Vera’s opposition to marriage. Submission date is Friday so I’ll let you know what happens after that.

After revising the script, my friend submitted it to the production company, and was thrilled to be invited to join their team. I’ve recently heard that she has just finished writing her first pilot script for them.

One Last Rule

When someone gives you feedback it’s a huge investment of their time and energy. So, when you’re listening, try to approach it with an open mind and an open heart. DON’T interrupt and DON’T try to defend your work, as tempting as it may be.

Feedback can be hard to hear at times, and it may even feel like someone has completely missed the point. But just listen, make copious notes, and once everyone has said their bit, ask questions if you need to. But try not to be defensive, because when you jump in with a response, it often sounds like you’re saying ‘I disagree’ and that could stop them in their tracks – stop the flow of their feedback – stop them giving more.

Listen to Feedback

We were given this advice over and over whilst on my MA. Many’s the time our workshops would almost descend into full-blown rows – luckily we always had a tutor there to reign us in and remind us of the rule.

We were also given this advice, and I always try to keep it in mind when listening to feedback:-

If you feel like the suggestions are completely ridiculous or have totally missed the point, take a deep breath and simply say, "Thank you! Let me play with this." And then go away and do just that (after you’ve had a lie down, of course). Play with all the ideas you’ve been given. Because you really never know what might come out the other side. They could be just the springboard you need to have a breakthrough.

It’s hard to sit there while our babies are torn apart. If you think the feedback you’re being given is ridiculous, you’re probably going to switch off and stop listening, while you carry on a private rant in your head.

However, the simple phrase ‘let me play with this’ helps you to stay calm and mindfully attend to the speaker (or your notebook, if you’re not up to making eye contact). You’re also giving yourself permission to ‘park’ the idea for a few days and come back to it when you’re in a different frame of mind. You may never do the crazy thing they were suggesting, but it might trigger something else, a useful question, perhaps. And at the very least it makes you realise where there are problems in your story.

A Quick Summary for Setting up Your Own Writers’ Workshop

Workshop

  1. Find your people – 4-8 writer friends or contacts from a writing course or community that you are part of.
  2. Choose writers in your medium – it will make the feedback more helpful.
  3. Choose the right organiser – someone who likes organising things, who’ll compile and circulate dates, send a reminder email and coordinate the session.
  4. Agree logistics – dates and times, deadline for submitting work and a suitable venue.
  5. Agree on what you can submit – the whole draft, or just a fragment?
  6. Decide how many pieces of work you’ll each critique – 3 is a good number.
  7. Agree what feedback is required – a written report or just a verbal one?
  8. Don’t forget the feedback sandwich. Positive comment, followed by constructive criticism, and end with a positive comment
  9. One last rule – don’t interrupt, don’t defend. And if the feedback sounds ridiculous, don’t forget to say: "Thank you, I’ll play with it!"

Feedback is so useful to the process of becoming a better writer. And it can be fun too. If you set up the right group, it will really feel like your people.

So, if you want to become a better writer, get yourself some deadlines, accountability, feedback and wonderful writerly support by setting up your own writing workshop group.

Good luck!

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Katy Segrove's Biography

Katy Segrove

Katy Segrove is a children’s author, animation writer and writing coach. She runs Pick Up Your Pen where she takes ambitious writers from blocked and procrastinating to writing every day and selling themselves with confidence. She focuses on improving habits and mindset, to get writers meeting their full potential.

You can sign up for her free 7-day writing course and newsletter which covers all aspects of writing, productivity, habits, blocks and different ways of marketing yourself and your writing.

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Big Thanks To Katy

I'd like to thank Katy for writing such an informative post, and openly sharing the critiques she has given and received to illustrate their value. Being a member of groups myself, I can back Katy up by saying that taking part in workshops and receiving constructive criticism can greatly improve your writing. Whether you write novels, screenplays, nonfiction or short stories, it often leads to more of your work being published.

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Kirsty W
That's a really helpful post, thank you Katy and Chris. Is there anywhere I can find details of writing groups looking for members? Thanks.

Chris Fielden
Hi Kirsty, thanks for your message - I'm glad you enjoyed Katy's post. I list a lot of writing groups here. At the bottom of that page, you will find links to many other resources that list more. I hope that's helpful :-)

Philip C
I joined the local u3a writing group when there were just 2 other members. I have found it a terrific group to be part of. As a group, we have published 4 anthologies of short stories and poetry. Group members have individually published an autobiography, a book of limericks, a book of poetry. Another has published 4 books, including a collection of short stories and three short books. One member, a science fiction and fantasy writer, has together with a previously published self-help book, had short stories published and is on the verge of having a full-length novel published. I have also written and published a novel. I couldn't have completed and published the book without the help of my fellow group members.

My experience has been wholly positive and I look forward to each meeting.

Chris Fielden
That's brilliant to hear. Thank you for sharing your experiences, Philip. Very much appreciated :-)