On Using The Sandwich Method In Critique Groups

Copyright Beabe Thompson 2013

Copyright Beabe Thompson 2013

After working for a huge oil corporation, sitting in on RWA critiquing workshops, and running a business for almost a decade, experience has reinforced my use of “the sandwich” method in criticism. Even when I was taking too many sick days from Chevron, they laid it out simply and succinctly (I was doing movie extra work).

Being in a critique group is hard work, no mistake. You have to listen hard to criticism and use it to hone your craft, revise works in progress, swallow your ego, and often “kill your darlings”. What I was taught using the sandwich method is to start off with good things, fill with what needs improvement, then end on a positive note.

Example? “Dolly, I really love the second part of your story. It’s lovely and I really enjoy the premise. (Elaboration.) But. I have some issues about the first part. I just don’t get a clear idea of what’s going on, or who the people are like in the story. I really want to know more. (Then show examples in the manuscript. Elaborate, but chose your words carefully.). There are some punctuation and grammar issues, but I’ve marked them for you to look at later. I really enjoy reading your manuscripts and want to hear more about Edna and Reginald. Thanks for sharing.”

There are those of you who are in critique groups that sometimes resemble Roman arenas, and that type of organization may use the open-face sandwich. “Tessie, your book stinks, but I think it has potential. I don’t know what’s going on in the plot and found so many errors that I stopped reading. Let’s go over what I found.”

If you’re like me, the open-face sandwich leaves me feeling like I’m driving a convertible in a hail storm. After the initial salvo, I just hear white noise and the faint “blah, blah, blah” of the critique partner giving me the bad news. And want to curl up and hide in a corner. If I’m still in my right mind, I’ll make notes, but it’s usually robotic. Yes, my skin is thin, has been since childhood. Please give me the two pieces of bread sandwich every time.

I want to learn, I know my writing is imperfect and often crap, but I need some sugar-coating before the bad news. No writer can exist in a vacuum. No writer can create without pain. “Killing your darlings” out of editorial need happens all the time. I have a lot of partial novels, some of which are so personally painful I’ll probably never finish them.

All writers have baggage, flaws, and imperfections of writing skills that have to be exorcised. To enter into the covenant of a critique group is an acceptance that help is needed, growth desired, polishing accomplished. Anyone who goes in thinking it’s going to be unicorns and lollipops is quickly disabused of that fallacy.

If you have a thin skin like me, the open face sandwich critique group is not going to work for you. Probably. Maybe you need some molly-coddling like I do to swallow helpful criticism, and that’s when the two pieces of bread sandwich will work. Give me the bad news, tell me my work is crap, but first give me a taste of the good.


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