Critiques and Nathan's Sandwich Rule

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bcomet
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Critiques and Nathan's Sandwich Rule

Post by bcomet » October 14th, 2010, 12:36 pm

Critiquing is an art.

Again and again, I see the ultimate wisdom and kindness as well as the productivity in remembering and employing Nathan's sandwich rule.*

(*When offering your feedback, please please remember the sandwich rule (Positive, very polite constructive feedback, positive).)
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It is unbelievably good manners to keep in mind as well as constructive and encouraging.

In one of my critique groups recently––while loving a member's work––a number of members tore through it with such gusto that, while the feedback was constructive and valuable, it also completely flattened the person. Critiquers went straight for the flaws and spent 95% of their time on the better possible model. But when the then pancake of a writer left the room, he walked straight to the cemetery and contemplated burying his book for good. People, it's not even Halloween yet.

I know that writer will survive it, will be a better writer for all the criticism and points made. He dutifully took notes throughout and politely remembered to thank everyone for their considerable efforts (which, in fact, they were) for which ultimately his writing will improve.

However, I wonder, again and again, how less of their editorial scissorwork and more of the use of the sandwich rule might have bolstered the poor fellow so he could have better assimilated the haircut his work got.

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Re: Critiques and Nathan's Sandwich Rule

Post by Claudie » October 14th, 2010, 12:55 pm

I love the sandwich rule. I have been using it long before I heard Nathan call it that way. When I am asked to critique something, I try to find as many positive points as I find negative. Yes, your job is to help the writer see what's wrong with the work, but I'd never want anyone thinking he wrote a piece of crap after I came along. I prefer to make them feel as though they accomplished something, and with a few extra steps they could make it even more worthwhile.
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Re: Critiques and Nathan's Sandwich Rule

Post by Margo » October 14th, 2010, 1:09 pm

I've recently adopted the Critters Workshop rules for critiquing. One of the most important rules, possibly the most important, is couch every criticism in the language of opinion rather than authority.

Instead of saying:
Three times you put in a long passage of info-dump disguised as dialogue. The reader can see what you're doing. It puts the breaks on the story so the author can insert information that should instead be worked into the story when it's actually necessary.

One would say:
Putting a lot of backstory into the dialogue, especially if it's a whole paragraph, didn't quite work for me. When I'm enjoying a story I kind of don't want to stop for background information, so I really like it when a writer just works the background in a sentence or two at a time right when I really have to know it to understand what's going on.

It usually helps.
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polymath
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Re: Critiques and Nathan's Sandwich Rule

Post by polymath » October 14th, 2010, 1:28 pm

I've encountered the sandwich rule elsewhere and under many names. It goes against instinctive human nature though. Fault finding in others builds up self-esteem at the expense of others. It's easy to find fault because there is no true perfection in anyone or any thing. And it causes a viscious cycle, a persistent feedback loop of fault finding. It becomes a tit-for-tat you too argument that hurts feelings and serves no constructive purpose. Alas, that though is the paradigm and paradox of workshop critiquing.

Finding virtue is harder because humans are more easily antagonized by faults and therefore more easily fixated on them in others. Less fault finding opens up time for appreciating the beauty of creation. Life is so much more enjoyable too from finding virtue. One, appreciating beauty is more fulfilling than fixating on ugliness. Two, fault finding draws the miserable thunder of fault finding, a hypocriticism paid back in kind. Three, seeking virtue sets an example by living well and prospering inspite of all the fault finding prevailing today. Four, fault finding causes divisiveness and impedes getting it done, done well.

The Atacama, Chile mining rescue is an inspirational example. No blame game, no fault finding trial in the court of pubic opinion, no divisive contention over how to get it done. A coodetermined, cooperative, coordinated effort succeeded with no hurt feelings. Chile's prestige, national pride, and stock in the world's regard soared because they got it done as pleasantly and politely as possible. I expect their financial outlook to soar as well. Increased tourism, increased foreign investment, increased external and internal trade. If I had a two bucks to rub together I'd invest in Chile.
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Re: Critiques and Nathan's Sandwich Rule

Post by cheekychook » October 14th, 2010, 1:42 pm

I love sandwiches. Seriously. I love eating them. I love making them for other people. It's a serious thing, sandwich making. It's not just 2 pieces of bread with some filling shoved inside, or at least it shouldn't be. There's an art to it. There should be some thought involved. There should be condiments, and well thought out layers, and yes, it matters what's touching what.

My kids make fun of me and call me a "perfect bite" person, because I will go out of my way to make sure that there's the same amount of everything in every bite. It really annoys me when you get a sandwich and there's a huge pile of meat in the center, practically noting extending out to the edges of the bread, and some condiment has been haphazardly blobbed somewhere random and is not reaching most of the other components. I will deconstruct and reconstruct before I eat. My kids find that funny. But they admit my sandwiches taste better.

Let's say you want a turkey and swiss sandwich with mayo and mustard. Sure you can glob the mayo and mustard onto one slice of bread, pile on the turkey and cheese and top it with the other slice of bread. It will taste fine---like a turkey and swiss sandwich with mayo and mustard. However, there are options. You can place just the mustard on one slice of bread, make sure the swiss cheese is against the mustard to allow the tangy taste of the mustard to bring out the nutty flavor of the cheese, then put on the turkey followed by an evenly mayonnaised slice of bread, to allow the creaminess of the mayonnaise to compliment the mild flavor of the turkey. It's still a turkey and cheese sandwich, but it will taste different. Put it in a panini press until it's crunchy and melty and it will taste different still.

The same goes for Nathan's Sandwich Rule (the rule which, I might add, is a large part of what drew me to and has kept me at this forum). Don't just toss two random pieces of bread at a person and fill it with whatever meat you have on hand. Think about what you're serving, use your condiments wisely. Distribute the ingredients evenly. Aim for the perfect bite. And don't try to convince someone that a ham sandwich is what they really want if they've asked for a turkey sandwich---for all you know they may not even eat ham.
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Re: Critiques and Nathan's Sandwich Rule

Post by bcomet » October 14th, 2010, 1:46 pm

Chile's rescue operation was impressive. The beautiful, open spirits affected the world.

Yes, I too have heard other names for the sandwich rule, but by whatever name, it is a very good rule.

I have noticed that it sometimes takes a leader to keep it on track. In several critique groups, when the leader left, changed, or lost sight of that, the group digressed.

Another thing, is that it is helpful to be specific in constructive comments.

"I didn't like the first three chapters." doesn't give anything a writer can specifically work with.

I particularly grow when I know why specifically and what the critiquer would like to see.
Sometimes just spouting "the rules" doesn't result in an "aha!" moment
without examples of what works/what doesn't and why or what needs to be added.

Also to stay focused on the work, not: "I like your other short story better."

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Re: Critiques and Nathan's Sandwich Rule

Post by bcomet » October 14th, 2010, 1:50 pm

Cheekychook, you are too funny. Now I want a sandwich for lunch too.

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Re: Critiques and Nathan's Sandwich Rule

Post by Sommer Leigh » October 14th, 2010, 1:52 pm

I might be in the minority as a writer, but I find most positive feedback, especially when used to soften negative feedback, to kind of be unhelpful and I'd rather get torn into by a critiquer (with specific critiques of course, not because he/she is a jerk) than be flattered with mostly useless positive remarks. I can't do anything with the feedback that the critiquer "really enjoyed chapter seven as a whole, but...." So unless the positive feedback is specific, like "This specific dialogue in chapter seven flowed really well. I know this is probably an info dump, but you worked it in naturally," I'd rather they spent more time on things that didn't work.

I think the trick is that I know I'm not good yet. I know there are problems with my transitions. I might have some ideas of what I think really works, but after working on it for so long I can't even really trust my own opinion 100%. I need someone else to say, "Yeah well, this is kind of crap right here. You info dumped all over me and I don't even think you're sorry about it." And when they say it, I don't also need them to say, "but these descriptions were nice." Unless of course, they really mean it and it felt important to point out.
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Re: Critiques and Nathan's Sandwich Rule

Post by Claudie » October 14th, 2010, 2:07 pm

Sommer, I don't know how confident you are in your writing, but I think a lot of authors are fragile when it comes to critique. They know it's needed, but it can still hurt, especially when it's not about the nitty-gritty details, but about the story itself (like, say, a character you find flat).

Now, I don't say that I wouldn't be more direct with critique partners I've had for a while, but with strangers, I find it better not to take risks and cushion my negative points. Besides, writers deserve to know what they did right, no?
"I do not think there is any thrill [...] like that felt by the inventor as he sees some creation of the brain unfolding to success... Such emotions make a man forget food, sleep, friends, love, everything." -- Nikola Tesla

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Re: Critiques and Nathan's Sandwich Rule

Post by bcomet » October 14th, 2010, 2:09 pm

Sommer,

The sandwich rule, in my interpretation of it anyway, doesn't utilize false flattery or vagueness. Neither would be helpful.

I agree that specific is useful both in supporting what's been done with finesse as well as sorting through areas that need restructuring.

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Re: Critiques and Nathan's Sandwich Rule

Post by Down the well » October 14th, 2010, 2:15 pm

A lot of it is about rapport. Sometimes people gel and sometimes they don't. Like Sommer said, I prefer people to tell me the negative so I can fix it. They may not be able to tell me how to fix it, but if they can identify that there is a problem I don't care if they smother it in mayonnaise or give it to me on dry toast. I want to know what isn't working.

It's much tougher giving critique than receiving it. You never know how someone is going to react. And it's always tempting to want to put your own spin or your own style on someone else's work, which is wrong, but sometimes it's a pitfall that can't be avoided. But no matter what, I suppose there is always something positive that could and should be said. And who doesn't want to hear praise once in awhile when writing is so full of rejection already?

Finding a good group or partner is tough, but if you are lucky enough to find them, hang on for dear life.

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Re: Critiques and Nathan's Sandwich Rule

Post by cheekychook » October 14th, 2010, 2:24 pm

Another serious reason that the sandwich rule is so important (aside from general courtesy and the fact that much of the critique process is subjective and a matter of opinion) is the fact that most authors need to have the good things pointed out to them so they don't DELETE them in a frenzy of rewriting. When you get to the point where you really need input from others it's often because you can no longer tell how you're doing. If your reader doesn't say "that description worked well" or "good dialogue on page 4" or "I love the way this happened because it illustrates blah, blah and blah so clearly" then the writer may take the criticism and revamp the entire piece, dismantling everything, including the parts that worked. It's very important to point out the good with the bad. And no sandwich should ever be smothered in mayo---it's a condiment, it's not the main course.
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Re: Critiques and Nathan's Sandwich Rule

Post by Margo » October 14th, 2010, 2:37 pm

Sommer Leigh wrote:I might be in the minority as a writer, but I find most positive feedback, especially when used to soften negative feedback, to kind of be unhelpful and I'd rather get torn into by a critiquer (with specific critiques of course, not because he/she is a jerk) than be flattered with mostly useless positive remarks.
I'm fairly close to this as my preference. General praise is unhelpful to me, and at this point I don't even get pleasure from it. However, if my critter points out a line that really had an effect on them, I do find that very helpful. I get to scribble the mental note: Do that again!

I do want to know where my writing might have fallen short on a project much more than I want a positivity summary. I don't need sugar coating or even the 'in my humble opinion' language I use at the workshop. Anything neutral and non-personal works fine for me. Humor is good.
cheekychook wrote:My kids make fun of me and call me a "perfect bite" person...
Oh no! Not you too! It's so OCD...but also so yummy.
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Re: Critiques and Nathan's Sandwich Rule

Post by polymath » October 14th, 2010, 2:42 pm

My self-imposed critique rule is remark on virtue solely, as much as humanly possible.

A paraphrase of a recent comment I made about a manuscript;

Narrative distance closes in on page twelve, line twenty. The protagonist's main complication and purpose are introduced, the motives and stakes are introduced, and rapport with the protagonist is firmly established. The plot starts moving then. It didn't take much, a paragraph or two of the manuscript that stood above the rest. Once and done, my interest was piqued by those paragraphs.

I had found something virtuous to comment on. I went on to comment on the methods that did all that. Subsequent revisions rewrote the opening to start introductions from the opening lines.

What I didn't remark on, slow start, limited causation, tension, and antagonism, scaffolding, remote narrative distance, Telling, unsettled narrative point of view, I remarked upon by not remarking on it, and by favorably remarking on how the two paragraphs stood out from lacking those issues. Revisions of the other pages addressed those issues by taking examples from what did work without my having to comment on what didn't work. From the writer's creative vision and narrative voice, not mine. It was taken as a given the first dozen pages weren't working as well.

I was able to build rapport with the writer by staying positive and encouraging without any surface negativity. No sandwiched praise and disapproving criticism. Instead, sandwiched praise and approving criticism. The method is as important as the message. The message is more palatable when the method is companionable.
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Re: Critiques and Nathan's Sandwich Rule

Post by cheekychook » October 14th, 2010, 2:53 pm

polymath wrote:My self-imposed critique rule is remark on virtue solely, as much as humanly possible.

A paraphrase of a recent comment I made about a manuscript;

Narrative distance closes in on page twelve, line twenty. The protagonist's main complication and purpose are introduced, the motives and stakes are introduced, and rapport with the protagonist is firmly established. The plot starts moving then. It didn't take much, a paragraph or two of the manuscript that stood above the rest. Once and done, my interest was piqued by those paragraphs.

I had found something virtuous to comment on. I went on to comment on the methods that did all that. Subsequent revisions rewrote the opening to start introductions from the opening lines.

What I didn't remark on, slow start, limited causation, tension, and antagonism, scaffolding, remote narrative distance, Telling, unsettled narrative point of view, I remarked upon by not remarking on it, and by favorably remarking on how the two paragraphs stood out from lacking those issues. Revisions of the other pages addressed those issues by taking examples from what did work without my having to comment on what didn't work. From the writer's creative vision and narrative voice, not mine. It was taken as a given the first dozen pages weren't working as well.

I was able to build rapport with the writer by staying positive and encouraging without any surface negativity. No sandwiched praise and disapproving criticism. Instead, sandwiched praise and approving criticism. The method is as important as the message. The message is more palatable when the method is companionable.
And for someone with your level of skill, understanding, experience, etc. that's fine---for those with less of all those things the sandwich rule attempts to keep people humane.
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