Critique sandwiches

tsj-maras-sandwich-january-30-2015
Image from thesocialjeep.com

Next time you see a writer, you may want to offer a sandwich. If you’re meeting with a group of writers, bring a platter of sandwiches.

I’m talking about the sandwich method of critique recommended by Eva Marie Everson and Janice Elsheimer in Word Weavers, a small book describing how Word Weavers International began as well as how to start and function within a local chapter.

Simply put, the sandwich approach places constructive criticism between two layers of positive praise, like meat between slices of bread. You begin a critique by noting something you liked or something the writer did well. Then you point out things that could be improved, suggesting ways to do that. Conclude by saying something positive about the piece.

word weavers
The Des Moines Word Weavers and guest speaker, taken when I (unfortunately) was not present.

My Word Weavers group employs the sandwich method. We try to couch constructive criticism within encouraging comments. This allows us to affirm each other while honing craft.

Over my years as a writer, I’ve participated in many critique experiences. And I must say: some people are better at this than others.

People frequently skip right over the first slice of bread and get right to what they view as the meat. They point out every typo and awkward construction, often repeating what others have already said. Then they end with a negative comment, leaving off that last slice of bread. What happens when you try to eat a sandwich without any bread? It can be pretty messy, can’t it?

The sandwich approach is not unique to Word Weavers; other organizations also utilize it effectively. On this page, Rob Kelly writes about using it in his Toastmasters group and describes the three steps of the method. Some writers within the business community, such as Roger Schwarz, suggest replacing the sandwich method with a more direct approach.

Functioning as an effective team leader in a corporate context, however, is very different from assessing someone’s speaking or writing. In those situations, sandwiches remain palatable and nourishing food.

Writers work primarily in isolation. They don’t have a boss coming by to give them a verbal pat on the back. They don’t receive promotions or performance awards. They may see some sales reports, but they rarely see people actually reading and enjoying their books. Most only occasionally hear compliments about something they’ve written.

While writers differ greatly in personality and self-esteem, their artistic temperament makes them in general a sensitive bunch. Most feel vulnerable within a critique context. It takes courage to share something you’ve written for public view and criticism.

Because words gestate in the womb of the writer’s mind before the finished product is birthed, authors often view written work as their “baby” (see this post on the Birth of a Book, relating how my Matthew juvenile fiction series came into being).

Who wants to offer their precious baby on the altar of criticism? Who wants to see it slashed and bleeding before their very eyes?

Harsh criticism not only seems like an attack on the work, it also feels like a personal attack against the writer. Authors pour themselves into their work. Writing isn’t a hobby or a 9 to 5 job for them. It’s their lifeblood. They eat words and drink inspiration. They bleed ink.

Many writers become reluctant speakers. They know it’s a necessary part of the marketing and promotion they must do. Perhaps they feel God is calling them to share some of what they’re learning. It’s wonderful to travel and meet other people, but timid speakers may prefer to stay home and weave words.

When critiquing someone’s writing or speaking, it’s easy to point out the faults. It’s more difficult to think of something encouraging to say. But it’s far more important.

Writers require affirmation. How can they know they are doing their work well if people don’t tell them? They may frequently remind themselves that they’re working for the Lord, not for men (Colossians 3:23), but how will they know that effort is effective if God’s image-bearers don’t share ways their hearts are touched?

If you have an opportunity to critique a writer, don’t discard the bread and throw only meat, as if the writer is a ferocious beast in a cage. Think about what you can say that’s positive, express criticism in a constructive way to help the writer improve the work, and then end with a bit of praise that will stick in the writer’s mind. Such a sandwich will provide the nutrition necessary for joyful growth.

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