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Making a Criticism Sandwich

Lately, I’ve been getting a lot of questions about giving good criticism.  Giving good, constructive criticism is hard.  There are countless ways to give criticism, and some of them are effective.

Finding something to criticize is easy; there are always different ways to do things.  Being constructive as you tear apart someone else’s writing is much more difficult.

Online, it’s often difficult to tell how well a new (to me) writer will react when I offer my criticism.  Most beginning writers are looking to improve their confidence…they think what they’ve written is good, so they’re looking for confirmation of that.  Most experienced writers want useful feedback–figuring out what they can change to improve their story.

When I’m criticizing an author’s work for the first time, I usually fall back on a tried and true technique:  “sandwiching.”  This offers a bit from both perspectives:  building confidence and giving useful feedback.

1. Praise for overall work. (The top bun)

Writing anything long enough to tell a story or inform someone about some topic is worthy of praise–the writer had to put a certain amount of time into it.  If nothing else, you can always say, “I can see that you’ve put a lot of work into this.  I have a few suggestions for you to help you think about your style.”

If you don’t feel comfortable with this generic praise, then you may want to pick one or two specific items that you like instead.  There’s always something that you can pull out that you liked (assuming the work is longer than a sentence).  For example, “I liked how your character smiled as he spoke; that shows a bit of the character’s personality.”

After you’ve given some praise, then you move on to the tougher piece…giving some constructive criticism.

2. Mention the two or three things that need the most attention.  (The stuff that makes the sandwich–meat, tomatoes, lettuce, cheese, etc)

Unless the author has requested a full, no holds barred edit, focus just on two or three things that need the most attention.  Avoid spelling and grammar comments in your first few rounds–if the author is rewriting sections, spending time on grammar or spelling is likely to result in wasted time.  Spelling and grammar should be among the last things to be corrected.

Instead, focus on things like  inconsistencies within the text.  For example, “You said in your second paragraph that monkeys never come out of trees, and then you have a picture of a monkey on the ground after paragraph seven.”

Another appropriate focus area might be missing information or believability of certain sections.  For example, “I don’t understand why Jane would take that action…is there something about her character that you might be assuming, but not saying?  Can you give hints to the reader as to why she made that decision (either before or after)?”

3. Praise on specific piece that was done well. (The bottom bun)

I sometimes switch 1 and 3 around–after all the sandwich is still a sandwich either way.  Regardless of what is written, it is always possible to find at least one, specific piece that you liked.  Point it out at this time.  This leaves the writer with a positive impression of your criticism, and also helps them recognize the good pieces in their writing, as well as what needs to improve.

If you are truly unable to find anything you like, you can still find something that was better than the rest of the work.  Also, you can always rely on the generic statement used in 1, restated a different way here.

4. Words of encouragement

After receiving criticism on any piece of writing, a writer may feel like you have been attacking them.  Most writers feel like their work is an extension of themselves, so criticizing the work feels like a criticism of the writer.  Recognize the human portion of the writing by giving some words of encouragement.  Remind the writer that you recognize the writer is separate from the work.  You can be as elaborate as you like, but I’ve found that something brief is usually enough, such as:

“Looking forward to your next draft!”

“I hope this helps!  Let me know if you have any questions.”

“Keep working at this, with the ideas I’ve mentioned above.  I think with a little more polish, this good work could be great!”

New writers tend to respond well to the sandwich method, because it helps them know what they’ve done well and what should improve.  Later, as you develop more of a relationship with the writer (and/or the writer gains experience), you can expand into more blunt criticism.  This method allows you to establish a rapport with the writer, so that they understand in future dealings that you truly do care about their improvement.

Experienced writers also tend to respond well to this technique, because it offers them the benefits of praise (praise always feels good) as well as a few things to work on.  Experienced writers may also recognize the pattern and quickly realize that you are an experienced editor who is a valuable resource.

Happy editing!

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2 Responses to “Making a Criticism Sandwich”

  1. TheBartender says:

    This post is featured in the blog carnival at http://www.missyfrye.net/Blog/?p=2059. Feel free to check out other articles within the carnival!

  2. […] presents Making a Criticism Sandwich posted at Writers Anonymous, saying, “Ever had trouble giving effective criticism? Making a […]

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