If you can't say something nice...

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

There's a trend on sites and blogs where crits are handed out as prizes or as a normal part of the site's operation; it's called the "Sandwich Method", and it's garbage.

Basically, the Sandwich Method means that if you have to give a critical opinion, you should "sandwich" it between two positive aspects of the submitted piece. There are several, glaring, problems with this system - especially when it's the normal operating procedure for what are supposed to be real critiques.

  • If someone wants to be a writer, then they need to get used to people having a problem with what they write. I don't care how good it is, someone's going to hate it.
  • Agents and editors don't bother to temper their impressions of a piece. If you figure out what's wrong with something before you submit to editors or agents, then you can spare yourself the head-scratching when the 2-1 ratio of good to bad doesn't hold up on submission.
  • Sometimes things suck. Sometimes they suck a lot. Sometimes there is nothing good about a submission other than the formatting came out clearly.

I can already see the hackles rising on those of you who still think Kindergarten rules apply to real life and that everyone should get to play and receive encouragement for the effort, but this isn't a game, and what most people who employ this soft-touch method of critiquing don't realize is that they're doing damage to the person they're trying to help.

Certain kinds of writers - new ones especially - have three very bad habits when it comes to seeking input on their writing.
  1. They ask expecting compliments because they're certain their words, style, grammar, etc. are perfect and beyond contest.
  2. They come at offered critique and advice as though the people reading their material owe them for the privilege of reading their words.
  3. They will latch onto anything - ANYTHING - positive as an indication that a particular bit, scene, or phrase needs to stay, no matter how many rounds of editing the piece goes through.
The so-called Sandwich Method is like crack to someone with one of those vices, and all you're doing is enabling them to keep their bad habits and sub-par writing, which is going to make them frustrated when that writing doesn't hold up when put next to that of someone who took the time to listen to the hard words and decided what did and didn't make sense for themselves.

  1. The compliment seekers will see the 2-to-1 ratio and, believing that it fits with their assumptions of their own talent and skill level, will ignore anything else - including the nitpicks in the sandwiched passages.
  2. When you crit something, you're investing your time and effort and skill for someone who's not paying you. You owe them nothing, other than your honesty; giving them anything less does them a disservice and wastes your own time.
  3. The last one is the one the Sandwich Method, and similar approaches, does the most damage to. They hang onto those "positives" as tight as they can. It doesn't matter that the rest of the scene changes and now the original material doesn't fit, or that what used to be the strongest element is now the weakest after edits - that was the "good" part of their original story, so it has to stay. They take "complimentary" as an indication of perfection.
Are all writers like this? No. Of course not. And I'm not saying you have to be cruel (though I'm sure any of you that followed me here from the crits I've given elsewhere have seen that word applied liberally). Just be honest. Tell the person what you think - and why <--- that's the key. Give them reasons and help them fix whatever problems you see. They don't have to take your advice, and your advice may not fit in the bigger scheme of their story, but at least you won't have hobbled them with empty praise.

So long as you aren't being intentionally petty, or offering up the "Ths sux!" kinds of remarks without comment on how to improve something, the writer's reaction to your opinion isn't your problem to deal with.

It's better to hear the hard truth while the story is in flux than wait until you've burned through all the agents you wanted to query with a less than shiny manuscript you thought was golden.

13 Chiming In:

Michelle D. Argyle said...

I am honest in my crits, but honestly, I can almost always find something I like about what I'm critiquing, and I therefore tell the reader these things as well as what I think can change. Of course, it's what I think. My opinion, and that's it, and I make that very clear.

With critiques I received as a newer writer, the honest, "harsh" ones were the best, yes, but oftentimes it's HOW those harsh things are said, and to me that's the "sandwiching" - not that the person necessarily said sticky-nice things to sugar-coat the bad. They simply said things in a straightforward, confident manner that was neither bitter, frustrated, or cruel. This is what you're talking about in your post, and I agree.

I often have to throw out "the bread" if I receive a critique which applies the sandwich method. Most people do it without thinking, I believe. I also don't think that "the bread" is always a pack of lies, but I've learned to throw it out and come back to it later if needed. I do appreciate it because sometimes I learn just as much from the positives in a critique as I do the negatives. It's good to know what you are doing right, as well.

I think the underlying idea is respect. In an ideal situation, the critiquer will respect the writer, and the writer will respect the critiquer.

Rose said...

What Michelle said! I think it's less about how "harsh" (these days, I think of it as "thorough") a critique is, so much as the spirit in which its given. If there's an undertone of mutual respect, then it's clear to both parties that the critique is all about trying to push the work to into its best shape, which is really what this is all about (for me).

I have become acquainted with the type of writers described in this post, and to them, I say, "Good luck." Hopefully they'll find a critique partner who'll give them what they want--which are compliments. But for most writers I know, the "harsher" the critique, the better.

Josin L. McQuein said...

Definitely the way something is said is key - that's what I meant by not being cruel. I just detest the implication that adults are incapable of taking constructive criticism without it being diluted by obligatory praise that can actually trip up an inexperienced writer.

(on a side note -- I managed to make a "scheduled" post work right YAY! :-P )

Lisa Aldin said...

This is a great point! But I think it's important to know what is working in the manuscript (if anything, I guess) and also what is not. Because if it's just what's not working, the writer may completely slash their manuscript and lose some good stuff in there. What works? What doesn't? Is kind of my critique method. But I see your point. Don't hand hold or sugar coat too much!

Brad Jaeger said...

I like you ^-^

Tatum Flynn said...

Great post, totally agree with you. You shouldn't feel like you HAVE to say nice things if there's really nothing you can find to praise. If you're constructive and polite with your criticism the writer ought to be able to take it (or leave it).

Stephanie Thornton said...

I always try to find something to praise when I crit (or grade my students' papers), even if it's just a cool word or the proper use of dialogue tags.

That said, my critiques are always super honest. They can take it or leave it!

Anonymous said...

I think the primary purpose of the sandwich technique imposed by sites like Nathan Bransford's is to maintain a civil tone. Things can get chaotic pretty quickly on the interwebs.

Secondly, writers who aren't savvy enough to understand that the meat of the critique lies in the middle are not going to suddenly grow 50 IQ points when a critique is nothing but negative. Personally, I can always find something positive, and I know I learn a lot from that. When someone points out what is working in my manuscript, it helps me keep going in the right direction.

There are a lot of writers out there who will never get published. They will never listen to a critique, they will never hear what they don't want to hear. Ultimately, they're writing for themselves. But I don't think there is anything wrong with that. You never know the nature or the purpose of somebody else's journey.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

When it comes to critiques...I prefer truth. If it sucks, I want people to come out and tell me. I'm a big boy and can handle the truth without getting mad or depressed.

Julie Musil said...

I also prefer the truth, as long as it's not cruel. I think the critiquer can point out the problems in a constructive way. I have a habit of focusing on the negative instead of the positive. While someone might say something nice about my writing, I focus on what was wrong. I'm working on balance!

Holly said...

I think you just became my new hero.

Followed you here from Query Shark, BTW.

Nice place you got here.

Loree Huebner said...

I want to hear the truth. I have an honest crit partner that I can trust. This helps tremendously. Writers are sensitive creatures. We should never brush off any constructive criticism. We need to take it, learn from it, and move on.

BTW, I love the tea pot thingy...

Jo-Ann said...

Hi - I'm new to your blog, and I've been reading through the older posts (great blog, BTW). I felt that I had to comment at this point.

Firstly, critiquing isn't about making friends. But it isn't about criticising, either. It's about taking an analytic approach, and being clear about what is and isn't working and why.

There are a few reasons. Firstly, something I see as a weakness in a manuscript might be something that another critter loves - if I explain why it isn't working for me, I'd be less likely to be dismissed as knowing nothing.... there is a diversity of tastes in this world!

If I include positives in my critique, I feel that my opinion (and effort) won’t be completed wasted, as they are less likely to dismiss my words as not knowing what I'm talking about. A "balanced" opinion is more likely to be heard than a negative one.

And, yes, I would like my all of my comments to be heard, so I approach critting the way I do at work when an employee is under-performing: I start with a positive, so that I dont come across as if I'm trying to destroy them/ pushing them to resign.

It's not sugar coating. At work, I will ask the person to take ownership for remediating their weaknesses by building on their strengths. To do so, I need to be clear on strengths as well as weaknesses. Any strengths! Then I'll encourage them to apply the plan, because i know they are determined to succeed (positive again).

It's exactly the same with writing. If somebody does dialogue well but sucks at action, I might point out that the sharp, witty lines work well here, and ask them how they might apply a similar approach at paragraphs 3,4,5 and 12-50 inclusive to help sustain the reader's interest.

Building on positives is, I believe, more helpful.

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