Crafting the Perfect Critique Sandwich

The topic of critique partners is something that’s been covered several times on Pub Crawl. But today I want to talk specifically about giving feedback.

The best critique partner relationships occur when there is trust and respect between the two writers. If you’re working with someone whose work you despise, you’re never going to trust their feedback about yours. Similarly, if you don’t respect them as a writer, or if they don’t seem to be respectful in how they give you feedback, that relationship is going to crash and burn.

Last summer I was on the Young Authors Give Back Tour with fellow Pub Crawlers. Part of our tour included free writing workshops with young aspiring writers. When we talked about the necessity of finding a good critique partner, Pub Crawl alum Sarah Maas suggested giving your CP feedback in what she coined a “critique sandwich.”

I’m not sure if this is a term of her invention, or something adapted from other advice she’s heard, but her advice to the young writers stuck with me. Essentially, your feedback should be a balance of good and bad, and crafted with care; a delicious crit sandwich, if you will.

You open with with something positive about your CP’s story . What’s working, what you loved, elements you thought were done especially well. Think of this as the bottom roll of a deli sandwich.

Then the bulk of your critique should focus on the less-than-positive aspects of the story. What’s not working, plot holes, character inconsistencies, world building issues, and so on. This is the meat of the sandwich. You can layer on some toppings too (mention smaller issues), but as a critique partner (rather than a beta reader), you want to focus most of your energy on big picture issues.

Finally, end your critique with additional positive remarks. Something else you loved, or better yet, cheerleading. You want your CP to feel motivated and encouraged about making the story better, not overwhelmed and lost. Think of this last bit of positive feedback as the top roll of your sandwich.

And just like that, you have a delicious, carefully crafted crit sandwich for your CP. (I can still picture Sarah holding an invisible sandwich in the air and pretending to bite into it as I say this.)

Here’s a real-world critique sandwich example. Sooz recently read my first draft of Vengeance Road. (Well, more like the 20th draft, but it was her first time reading, and I’d revised the book as far as I could on my own.) Sooz’s feedback (paraphrased and simplified), went something like this:

  1. First of all, your world is fantastic. I could picture everything, feel the dust and the plains and the heat. Really great.
  2. I think you need to take a closer look at your characters and their emotional arcs. Kate has this mission of revenge, but she’s so focused on it that she almost becomes one-dimensional and selfish in her goals. Why are so many people helping her when she offers nothing in return? Maybe there’s a way to make her more sympathetic. [Sooz threw out some ideas] Similarly, [more thoughts on secondary characters and their motives]
  3. Lastly, I think you have the bones of a great story here. The plot is there, and the world-building is great. Making the characters more nuanced and realistic is only going to make the story as a whole that much more compelling.

This feedback was actually given to me by video chat, so we spent several hours on point #2, brainstorming together and bouncing ideas back and forth. (If you have the means, I highly suggest this route when working with a CP. Beta reading feedback is usually fine via email, but for the heavy lifting, it is so nice to hash things out in real-time, face-to-face.)

As you can see, Sooz, whether she meant to or not, provided me with a delicious critique sandwich. If you’ve been working with a dedicated CP for awhile and have a good rapport, there’s a good chance you subconsciously give each other feedback like this, too.

But if you’re new to critiquing, or working with a new critique partner for the first time, I highly recommend keeping the “critique sandwich” in mind as you provide your feedback. It’s the perfect balance of encouragement and criticism. No one writes a perfect first draft (or book for that matter), but feedback that focuses entirely on negative or broken aspects of the book is a sure way to kill someone’s drive. As writers, we know 99% of writing is revision, but it so inspirational to hear what is working in any given draft. I can’t stress enough how important it is to cap your feedback with these positive aspects.

Before you go, I’m curious: Do you give your CP feedback (subconsciously or purposely) in a sandwich format? What other tips do you have providing tactful feedback?

For further Pub Crawl reading on this topic, check out the ‘Conversation between Critique Partners‘ series:
The Basics | World Building | Sharing Ideas & Stories | Trusting Your Work

13 Responses to Crafting the Perfect Critique Sandwich

  1. Cait @ Notebook Sist Jun 23 2014 at 7:43 am #

    Oh I am literally going to share this post everywhere. It is so brilliant and helpful!! Thank you so much, Erin!!

  2. jeffo Jun 23 2014 at 8:15 am #

    I always try to be positive. Receiving critiques, even if they’re not ‘nasty’, can be a bruising business, and it’s important to offer up encouragement. I also do my best not to come off sounding snarky or nasty, as there’s no need to be a tool about it.

    • Erin Bowman Jun 23 2014 at 9:36 am #

      I completely agree! Even a professional and civil critique can be a downer if not a single positive thing is mentioned. A bit of cheerleading goes a long way.

  3. Laura Medlock Jun 23 2014 at 9:45 am #

    This is the best method for critique. Someone at my day job recently called it the ‘kiss-slap-kiss’ method, which is always what I call it now! 🙂

    Great post,

    • Erin Bowman Jun 23 2014 at 10:39 am #

      Ha! I love that label. Very fitting. 🙂

  4. Maya Prasad Jun 23 2014 at 1:24 pm #

    Great advice, thank you! I love the sandwich method, both for giving and receiving critiques. I also agree that if you don’t respect each other’s writing, it just isn’t going to work.

  5. Krispy Jun 23 2014 at 2:56 pm #

    Great points, especially about mutual respect and finding partners that “match” you. I have heard the sandwich method before and totally agree that it’s the best way to go. In some ways, hearing what is good is just as important as hearing what needs improvement!

  6. Azaria Jun 23 2014 at 8:21 pm #

    My CP and I use a similar method to the critique sandwich, though admit we tend to lean more toward the bread points apparently. Recently we did realize we had become lazy and resorted to “well done” and “I like this” rather than offering any thing constructive. And it did make a difference. Now that we have made the effort to offer more detailed feedback, we’ve both been more inspired and word counts are much higher. I’m going to send her the sandwich-think it will be very helpful!

  7. Rowenna Jun 24 2014 at 12:38 pm #

    In my day job as a writing tutor, I definitely do this–I lead with something positive, spend the bulk of our time on what needs fixed (with “oh, it’s really nice how you did x here” thrown in where applicable) and end with a compliment or encouragement. With my CPs? We’re at the point that we really don’t rely on the formality. I can just say “I didn’t get this part” without a positive aspect first; we can kind of organically discuss. But I think the sandwich is really, really useful for building that relationship.

  8. Abby Jun 25 2014 at 8:57 am #

    My critique group tries to do this whenever giving feedback (though some people are anxious to leap right into suggestions!). It really does help us make sure we mention the things that work, which then boosts the writer’s confidence. I’ve actually been using this technique (and calling it a “happy sandwich”) for years in teaching, both when writing student comments (what’s great, what she’s struggling with, how she can work on it) and when teaching peer editing. It’s super helpful for kids to keep them positive, too.

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