Sandwiching: How to Give Effective Criticism Without Breaking Writerly Hearts
We’ve all been there. That nerve-wracking, nauseating moment where feedback from a beta, CP, contest judge, editor, or agent pops up in your inbox. You want to know what they have to say. You sent your book baby to them for the sole purpose of getting their opinions and advice. You know there’s going to be criticism involved, because you’re a smart cookie and you’ve gathered you can’t please everyone. Still, terror grips you by the throat as you click the email and open what is sure to be at least a minor bruise to your writerly ego.
But what happens when that “minor bruise” turns into a murderous rampage on your heart and you find yourself a shattered mess?
I wish I could say this never happens. I wish everyone who provided feedback did so with the mindset that a writer’s words are the product of their blood, sweat, and tears. They’re a part of them in a very real, very intense way. Therefore, criticisms should be offered kindly, suggestions made gently, and both should always be sandwiched with positives.
For those of you who don’t have a bloody clue what I mean by “sandwich,” or for those who might be looking for a more effective and less painful way to provide feedback when beta reading or CPing, this article is for you.
So, what exactly do I mean when I say, “sandwich with positives?”
Far too often, beta readers, CPs, and contest judges—heck, even editors and agents sometimes—approach feedback as a primarily negative thing. No, I don’t mean they go into it hoping to tear the writer down and leave them in a puddle of their own tears… although, unfortunately, this is often how writers find themselves after receiving a write up from one of these individuals. What I mean is, they believe their goal is to find the areas where the manuscript in question has flaws, point them out, then inform the writer how they might fix these issues.
Which, okay, yes… that’s definitely part of it. A desirable part, no less. But it isn’t everything. And it absolutely should not be all that’s provided.
No matter how much you may dislike a read—no matter how many faults you may find—there are always positives to be found. Always. It’s your job, as the feedback provider, to locate the areas where the writer could improve, but also to make note of the areas where they truly shine.
Sandwiching is the process of placing brutal criticisms between slices of praise. Not only does it make those harsh comments easier to swallow, thus making it more likely the writer will process them effectively and garner benefit from your feedback, but it also prevents unnecessary heartbreak.
Let’s be honest here. Most of us aren’t aiming to hurt those we’re critiquing. Our goal is to help make the manuscript and the writer stronger. So, the last thing we want is to have our words break the writer so terribly they aren’t capable of hearing what we’re trying to say.
In case anyone wants or needs some examples of how to effortlessly pull off such a feat—or how to epically fail—I’m going to provide some below. These are honest to goodness snippets of feedback I’ve received from my darling and wonderful editor, Sione Aeschliman, and from a recent contest judge.
Let’s start with Sione, who has done a fantastic job of taking my story and elevating it to the next level and beyond with some killer developmental edits. (If any of you lovelies are looking for an editor who not only knows her stuff, but conveys it in an easy to understand and non-painful way—i.e. she totally sandwiches!—then Sione is the perfect editing human for you! Check her out!!)
I’ve been through two rounds of developmental edits for my current WIP. Mostly, this is because my first draft was a disastrous mess that straddled the line of literary fiction and romantic suspense (two genres with distinctly different audiences… trust me, it was not working). So, with that in mind, allow me to show you how my second developmental edit letter started:
“Yeeeess! YAAAASSSSS!!! This manuscript has come leaps and bounds since the last draft. I am SO EXCITED about this! (In case the all caps and exclamation points hadn’t already made that abundantly clear.)
In terms of the goals I suggested for this draft: YOU NAILED IT. This book is 100% romantic suspense now, with an appropriately paced structure, a clear narrative arc, and some fantastic new scenes that develop the external conflict and bring in the characters that were missing or underutilized in the last draft.”
Now, tell me that wouldn’t warm the cockles of your little writerly heart? It was exactly the dose of praise I needed to ease my anxiety enough so my brain could take in the feedback that followed. But, trust me, Sione didn’t stop there. In each section, she led with a compliment, provided her critique, then offered suggestions of ways to fix the lacking areas. For example:
“You’ve done a marvelous job of developing the romance between Micah and Josh while establishing their inner conflicts: Micah is afraid he disgusts Josh and is unworthy of his love, while Josh is afraid that Micah isn’t in a headspace to consent to any sexual contact. Hurrah! What we need now is more follow-through on the events outside of their relationship so these elements don’t seem to come out of the blue later in the book, and we need to see how these events act as obstacles or catalysts to the romance plot.”
Overall, what could have been a very painful experience wound up leaving me energized and ready to take on the world. Even though I had paid Sione to be brutally honest with me—and, indeed, she was—she did so in such a way that the many corrections I had to make felt not only doable, but exciting. I was motivated to make my manuscript the best version of itself it could be, rather than left rocking in a corner licking my writerly wounds.
One of the best examples I have of how to not provide feedback comes from a recent contest judge of mine. Now, to be fair, I believe a lot of contest judges get distracted by their duties and forget to point out the positives. This mindset is also likely thanks to anonymity and an often overwhelming pile of entries to get through. Either way, I’ve received some painfully harsh criticism from contest judges, even when they ultimately score my manuscript high enough to land a finalist spot. For example:
“I found your author voice to be very distracting. You should consider writing significantly shorter sentences and decreasing the ‘flowery’ nature of your prose. In addition, I found it very unrealistic that your characters would be so clueless as to be best friends but unaware of their shared attraction. That drew me out of the story immediately and resulted in significant exasperation on my part as the reader. There needs to be realism in your characters. Just because they were in high school during your prologue doesn’t mean they would be that ignorant. By making them so, you are insulting both your characters and your readers. Also, I don’t believe someone as popular as Micah would feel as he does for a ‘band geek’ like Josh. Consider altering one of their personas to make this a more realistic pairing. Again, realism is key.”
This was only the beginning of the comments from this judge, but they continued in the same vein. Yet, I received a 98/100 on the actual score sheet, despite there being no positive comments provided that would lead me to believe the judge thought I’d done well. Again, I believe the judge was doing their best to help me see areas where I could improve and wasn’t doing it maliciously, but because there was zero optimism in the feedback, I was left dumbfounded.
If you only take one thing away from this article, I hope it’s this: Kindness goes a lot further than cruelty, even the inadvertent sort. Be self aware when providing feedback, and stop to think, “How would it feel if someone sent this to me?” If you truly want to help a writer to better themselves, there’s no quicker way to squash that goal than by shattering their writerly heart and soul. So, sandwich your criticism with praise, and frame your critiques and suggestions as gently as possible. It is a courtesy you will hopefully have returned.
Until next time,