On William Gallagher’s excellent Self Distract blog this week, he posted a piece criticising the “praise sandwich”, and by implication and extension the practice of critique groups. On this occasion, I disagree with him profoundly. Before I explain why, you should read William’s post:
I’d like to begin by drawing a distinction between critiquing and editing. (I know this distinction isn’t universally observed, but I think it’s useful, so bear with me.) To me, editing is what you do with a developed piece of writing, and its purpose is to make that piece as good as it can possibly be. Editing is best carried out by a single person, not a group, and that person should have some experience and knowledge which gives their views authority and objectivity. The purpose of editing is to identify and resolve problems with the piece, not to fluff the writer’s ego.
Critiquing, despite its name, is a different thing altogether: done properly it’s part of an ongoing process aimed at making the writer the best writer they can possibly be. It’s best carried out in groups, because readers are all different, and what one hates another might love; and because it should be predominantly a peer-to-peer process, not a hierarchical one. People in a critique group also put their own writing up for feedback, and so are inclined to be kinder. Good critique takes into account where that individual writer is, and what the next step is for them. If you’re at the beginning of your writing journey, then you generally need encouragement, not having your work ripped apart – because you learn most about writing by writing. So anything that encourages people to write helps them to be better writers, anything that puts them off does not. When you’re in the middle of the first draft of a novel, the most important message is “keep going.”
This isn’t to say that developing writers should be love-bombed with disproportionate or dishonest praise. It’s about finding the positives, and identifying one or two manageable areas for development. It’s about recognising how much people can take, and getting the balance right. It’s about helping people get used to the idea of critique, and preparing them for “professional” editing.
I do teach the “praise sandwich” in my courses. It’s rarely applied so crudely in practice, but it does remind people of the need for balance. Because inexperienced critiquers often get carried away, unleashing their inner literary critic. And if you’ve never shown or read your work to anyone before, it can be a terrifying experience, and one that, handled badly, could put you off writing ever again.
I don’t believe that Pow-Wow, as a mature critique group, needs such simplistic techniques. I rely on the intelligence, experience and empathy of group members to find the right level for each individual. Sometimes newer writers are looking for robust feedback, and sometimes more experienced, published “professionals” bristle and become defensive at the first hint of criticism. And of course we often disagree. It’s not perfect, and might not suit everybody, but overall I think we get the balance more or less right.
If what you want is editing, then critique groups are always going to disappoint you. To me they’re about developing a supportive community, and helping people learn their craft through practice and discussion. And when your work has been written and revised and rewritten and polished, that’s the time to look for an editor. Because editing is about the writing, and critique is about the writer. Each has their place and time. And sometimes, a praise sandwich is just what you need to keep you going.