On the praise sandwich

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:

http://williamgallagher.com/selfdistract/2014/11/07/praise-on-toast/

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 mobile casino 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.

One thought on “On the praise sandwich

  1. I’m still not convinced. But I mention one group in my original piece that I say is superbly run and has become an important part of a friend’s life: that group is yours, PowWow.

    (Nips off to cut that bit out immediately.)

    Everything I hear about PowWow is positive. I’ve recommended people go to it – and then I’ve interrogated them afterwards to see if I’d steered them right. Invariably I have. So I hope neither you nor anyone else takes my piece as being against groups and I do particularly take your point about editing vs critiquing.

    It’s frustrating that I can’t point you to the piece that sparked my rant off but I can’t and also can’t tell you why. But I think one can guess. The crux of it, though, was that a writer had taken criticism badly and that this was very sad and we should all be sympathetic, but if he or she isn’t professional enough to take professional criticism professionally then there is nothing professionals can do. I mean, we used the praise sandwich which never fails and is always in all ways a perfect thing for dealing with amateurs. I think any pro reading that would find it insulting.

    But I also know a bit about this particular group and that fuelled me further because it talks about being pro and harsh and only for people who can take it but it’s really only for people it can take. Write the way they do, think the way they, maybe you can join them. Fine, if that’s you. But it’s not critiquing, it’s a social little enterprise and time and spotlights are given by some pecking order rule I couldn’t see. Certainly, certainly, not by any professional standard. (And I’m wearing that word out, aren’t I?)

    I also don’t think it’s supportive except in so far as I did get a plateful of praise sandwiches and I did end up lying politely to someone. What I lied to her might or might have encouraged her but what I could actually have told her would’ve helped.

    Encouragement is more than wonderful, it is necessary. But the praise sandwich was not encouragement here, not by anyone: it was lying for the sake of making the critic feel better.

    The right answer in this group as, I believe, in any, is to find just what you said: the right level. That is the role of a group as you describe it but I think it’s also the job of the writer. Try groups out and move along until you find one that works for you. But I mean works: the aim is to write better and great advice buried after insultingly patronising baloney doesn’t help.

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