Sandwich Critiquing

You’ve been asked to read a friend’s manuscript. After dutifully plowing through 100 pages of less-than-perfect, sometimes entertaining, but often difficult to understand prose you’re left with one question: how do you tell your friend her manuscript needs a lot of work?

Unless you really don’t care about hurting your friend’s feelings and possibly losing a friend, this can be a very tricky situation. I know several writers who refuse to read other people’s unpublished works for just that reason. Yet, it seems crueler to me to let a friend send an unpolished manuscript out knowing you could have helped.

Enter the sandwich method. I don’t know who first came up with the idea, but I say, “God bless ‘em,” because it makes giving (and receiving) constructive criticism a lot easier on the old ego. Simply put, the sandwich method gives the criticism “sandwiched” between bits of praise.
 
I can hear my husband saying, “So I can say ‘I like your hair. Your characters stink, but those jeans are really slimming on you.’”
 
Uh, no. The praise has to come from something in the manuscript.
 
“But, Virginia,” you may be whining, “it’s nothing but sentimental drivel and inane cliches!”
 
That may be; however, as Brenda Ueland says in If You Want to Write, even in the worst writing there is something of value. You may have to look hard, but it is there.
 
As for the actual criticism, it’s always best to be specific. Telling someone their story didn’t hold your attention doesn’t cut it. Why didn’t it “hold your attention?” Was there too much description? Were the characters two-dimensional and uninteresting? Perhaps the sentences were too long and rambling. Be specific.
 
Last of all, be sure to end with some more praise. I like to point out something good in the work I didn’t mention before. Sometimes all you can do, though, is reiterate the praise (using different words, of course) that you already gave. Either way, I tell the manuscript’s author that it has potential because I honestly believe everything has potential. Some things just need a lot (and I’m talking about a whole overhaul) of work.
 
It’s the process of growing one’s work from potential to published through the use of helpful constructive criticism that makes it worthwhile to travel The Road to Writing.

This is a reprint from Virginia Ripple‘s The Road to Writing.

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