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It's not a sandwich, it's architecture. - Barnstorming on an Invisible Segway [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]
Marissa Lingen

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It's not a sandwich, it's architecture. [Oct. 3rd, 2012|11:03 am]
Marissa Lingen
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I was reading an essay of Daniel Abraham's over at Clarkesworld, and it brought up a really common model of critique that I wanted to take issue with, because how we apprehend the metaphor can really affect how we perceive the content. Abraham writes: "There are numerous guides on how to give a good critique. The most basic is the 'shit sandwich' approach: You say something good about the work, then all the stuff that was crap in the middle, and end with something else good. The most honest was Maureen McHugh's description of a good critique: 'Say something true and useful.' Regardless, the point of a critique is to find fault—often to take a perfectly good story and reread it as many times as I have to in order to find something wrong, then think about how to fix it."

Okay, well: I am entirely with Maureen McHugh. Entirely entirely. Go Maureen, for you have the rightness of it.

That last sentence, while not the focus of this post, is to my way of thinking entirely wrong. Entirely. Luckily for many of us, our stories are not perfectly good when our critiquers are reading them, and so the difference between this sentence and the actual point of a critique can be approximately equal to zero. But if you read the story several times and think hard about it and do not find fault with it, the answer is not, "Just keep trying to find fault." The answer is that from your perspective as a critiquer, further futzing with this story is not necessary and will probably be counterproductive. Because stories may be infinitely perfectable, but not always with you as a critiquer. The elements that you find on the thirteenth read as a critiquer that struck you as perfectly fine on the twelfth and are now getting on your nerves may well be perfectly fine elements and artifacts of looking at the thing under a microscope. (When you're the writer, that's somewhat different.) You can decide, if you like, that a drop-dead gorgeous person is hideous merely by looking at their pores obsessively. This is not useful. And it does not mean that you have now served your purpose as a critiquer, now that you can say, "Actually I think the eyelashes of the right eye are a little too sparse," leaving someone to fixate on mascara, irritate her eye, and get an infection in it. Okay, this metaphor has run away with me. But seriously. This can happen to stories. Only find fault with things you honestly find fault with. Do not go into a critique thinking, "Must find the suck."

(Honestly, this is so rarely a problem. The suck will so often find you.)

But that's not what I meant to talk about.

No, I meant to talk about the shit sandwich. Yum! What a tasty metaphor!

The thing about the shit sandwich model is that while it works all right in terms of the psychology of getting people to listen to your negative points, knowing that the shit sandwich model is in use can undermine your positive points, and positive points are seriously important. I saw this happen in one of my own crit groups. It was an early session, and the person being critiqued started to protest that the group did not need to baby him/her with all the nice things--she/he could take criticism of the work in question.

But the group was not babying, and the group was not providing the proverbial shit sandwich, and what we were doing was a fundamental part of the criticism. We were pointing out where the book was solid. Because when we did go into the "this is where things are totally not working" portion of the discussion--varying from person to person about where, in fact, things did not work, but coming up with some consensus points--it was good for the writer to have an idea of where things did work (and for which kinds of reader). It was good for that not to get lost. It was, in fact, necessary for that not to get lost. Because otherwise if you start in with a critique like "all the characters whose names begin with B should get cut completely," or, "this story needs army ants," the restructuring involved can wipe out worthwhile aspects of the story unintentionally. The writer can lose sight of really good things.

And here's the thing: I think there's this perception that every writer will think that everything they do is awesome unless you actively tell them that it sucks. This is...oh, what's the word I'm looking for here?...bullshit. Everybody has a characteristic set of errors. But they are not all the same. Some people really do think that every word they write is a shining droplet of gold, and they really do need their critiquers to grab them by the shoulders and say, "HEY BOZO," and even then they will change only as many words as necessary to remove the bozo stigma. Other people are really eager to take critique well, to the point where they will hear a critique and immediately think of how they can rewrite the whole thing! from the ground up! with a new perspective! and a new tense! and possibly a new speculative conceit! And so on.

And it's all very well to say that the people who are eager to take critique well need to have confidence in their work, but you might as well say that the HEY BOZO people need to have humility. We all need to be aware of our characteristic errors. But the point of the shit sandwich metaphor is that it places critique into a framework where the critiquer is trying to get the original writer to swallow something. That's not what's going on. You're not trying to get them to do what you want or think what you want. You're the building inspector. You're pointing out what is and is not structurally sound. And the "is" is just as important as the "is not." You don't say, "I really loved the protagonist's relationship with her sister" because you want the person you're critiquing to go home with a warm fuzzy feeling, and you don't say it because you want to manipulate the person you're critiquing into doing what you want about the revelation of the murderer. You do it because the protagonist's relationship with her sister is a solid, true piece of writing that is worth protecting in the revisions. The writer doesn't have to pour new concrete there, or figure out a different shape for the arch so that the ceiling will keep out the rain. And the writer shouldn't sigh and remove a really beautiful fan vault and replace it with a brutalist flat tarred roof unless it's absolutely necessary--and certainly not while thinking that nobody really saw what the fan vault was doing in the story.

Oh, metaphors. They're so bad for me.
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: cathshaffer
2012-10-03 05:09 pm (UTC)
Ah, critiques. How problematic they can be. I've talked with a friend at length about how for US, it is hard to even hear the positive comments at first, and I think we're pretty normal. Say 100 positive things about my work, and I'll dwell on the one tiny negative niggle. I often find myself creating a shit sandwich when I have some Very Bad News to deliver to a writer about what I perceive as major problems in a work. I want to in some way take the sting out of it, and also I want to make sure they don't destroy the good things about their work if they decide to take my advice. I guess I go into a critique with an attitude of finding the strengths. When I critique a story or a book, I want to see the story in the writer's head and help them get it on the page. Every story is wonderful inside the author's head. They only fail in translation.
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[User Picture]From: wshaffer
2012-10-03 05:14 pm (UTC)
Yeah, as a writer, it is definitely at least as important to me to know what is working as to know what isn't.

I was reading an article not too long ago about the use of the "shit sandwich" model in providing workplace feedback, and the problems it can cause there. First, because everyone is very familiar with the model, and if they realize consciously that it's being employed on them, they'll tend to discount the feedback. Also, the article alleged that it's very much an American (or at least Western) thing, and that non-Americans often interpret it as, "Get wary when an American praises you, because it means they are about to stab you in the back." Made me think twice about how I offer feedback to my colleagues.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2012-10-03 08:39 pm (UTC)
I'm a very blunt person! I just say whatever I'm thinking, and people have to deal with it! I shoot straight from the hip! And what I have to say is this: I think that shirt looks great on you.

Seriously, I think there are several cultural things related there. People never go on about how they're blunt/a straight-shooter/etc. when they're going to say something nice. But in some types of professional interaction, people never just go in, say something nice, and stop. "Something nice" is perceived as worthless. Really it isn't. At all.

It was very hard, when I had the best tempura of my life, to convey that message to the waitress to convey to the cook. "How are your meals?" "Really great!" "Good!" I had to stop her. "No, seriously. This is the best tempura I have ever had. Usually people say 'really great' to make you go away because everything is good. This really is really great."

I don't give standing ovations mostly either. And now I am sad because Douglas Wright is locked out of the Minnesota Orchestra, and the other stupid wretches around me give standing ovations so habitually that he will never know that I leapt spontaneously to my feet after his solo in an Aho symphony, and I would give any number of stupid new lobbies to have him keep playing the trombone--which isn't even one of my favorite instruments!--for the orchestra. I don't do that. But formatting problems kept my data from being data, and I believe it was the only standing ovation I've ever given that Minnesota Orchestra without guest performers.

Stop tainting my data sets, people!
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[User Picture]From: swan_tower
2012-10-03 06:47 pm (UTC)
I agree about the need to preserve what's working. Oh, how I agree.

. . . however, comma, there actually have been times where my positive comments were motivated less by that concern than by a desire to soften the following blow. I'm thinking specifically of some of the stories my students handed in when I was teaching creative writing, where my actual instinct was "chuck this in the trash because there's nothing worth saving," but it wouldn't actually be productive for me to say that. So I made myself choose just one or two of the shrieking flaws to discuss (since drowning somebody in "you need to fix the characters and the plot and the dialogue and the descriptions and the concept and also your grammar" all at once rarely helps), and also find something vaguely positive to say, just so my message wouldn't be "this sucks and there's nothing worth saving."

I guess you could say the thing I wanted to protect and preserve was the writer's self-esteem. But it really wasn't anything in the text.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2012-10-03 08:33 pm (UTC)
Yeah, the times when you're critiquing something that's really not there on any axis are incredibly tough. Because frankly there are things that do not deserve saving. There are times when the most useful answer is, "Go write something else," but that's a lot harder to take when you don't have the solid basis of, "I believe in your talent and in other things you've written--this is a short piece and is just working," than when it's, "This is a huge undertaking, and I have no idea whether you ever will do anything worthwhile, I just know this is not it."

I don't believe that anyone who can be dissuaded from writing should be. Absolutely not. But I do believe that some ideas are not salvageable. And not every critiquer is the person to convey that message. But I personally find it useful to have some critiquers who are. So that part's complicated too.
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[User Picture]From: swan_tower
2012-10-04 05:23 am (UTC)
In general, my philosophy was that the important thing was for them to keep writing, and to have something concrete to work on improving. But I needed to give them a reason not to quit in despair, and that was hard when I got the incomprehensible and gratuitously gory furry splatterpunk murder story with sentences that barely looked like English.

(I wish I were making that one up. But no: furry convention, weird creepy sexual interactions between the two characters, horrific violence, and the most amazingly bad grammar. And I felt extra-bad about it because the student was a nice guy. But oy vey. Especially because, wow, was that a test for the rest of the class, when the guy was pretty clearly flashing his id for the world to see.)
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2012-10-04 11:43 am (UTC)
Oh yah, by the time you've critiqued a thing or two outside your own carefully selected circles, the things that sound most like jokes sound the least like jokes.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2012-10-04 03:57 pm (UTC)
No, but sometimes it's very bad. Sometimes it's very bad indeed. There are some things you don't want to sign up for, and that's all right.
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[User Picture]From: skzbrust
2012-10-03 07:44 pm (UTC)
I remember one of my favorite lines from a book by Kara Dalkey didn't make it into the final version because no one told her how good it was. I've remembered since then. Good post.
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From: diatryma
2012-10-03 10:33 pm (UTC)
I consciously use the sandwich structure because I think it's useful to be sure I have opened and ended with praise. I had a student this year who said I said nothing good about her story at all, and knowing that I always say something good made me a lot less worried about crushing her or something. But I don't put only bad stuff in the middle, either; there's a lot of good sprinkled in.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2012-10-03 11:57 pm (UTC)
Okay, but why do you think it's useful to open and end with praise? Because that's what this post was about.
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[User Picture]From: cattitude
2012-10-04 01:30 am (UTC)
I am amazed at how far the metaphor of the shit sandwich has moved from its origin. The original observation was on wealth: X is like a shit sandwich: the more bread you have, the less shit you have to eat.

How did this metaphor get reified away from its initial social commentary?
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From: samarcandbooks
2012-10-04 11:18 am (UTC)
Yes. To everything you just said. On the whole, I think that if a point has taken n reads (where n is larger, really than two or three) to stick out when the critiquer (is that even a word?) is actively looking for faults then really, is it actually something that needs working on? If you don't think you've done the job until you can find something negative to say about the piece of writing then, really, I think you probably need to find a different job, 'cos you've totally missed the point.

Also, (on the point that you and swan_tower were discussing) I think that occasionally, being told that what has been written is a complete piece of crap with no redeeming features can be useful - as long as you can back up what you are saying with words. Frankly, I think that if the writer can take that sort of criticism and come back then, whatever the flaws in their work, it's something that can be worked through. Basically, if you are going to be put off writing by someone else then you were never going to make it as a writer in the first place.

My latest book is at the stage where I've sent it out to beta-readers and I'm waiting for feedback.

So far, the points that have been made have been extremely useful, both positive and negative. It has been far from a shit sandwich. And I'm really glad about that. I think the SS approach is really artificial and critiquing in that way means that you are at one remove from what the person critiquing the work is actually telling you. I would rather have someone telling me what they thought in the order they thought it. This, I think, would give some form of importance to the points made. So, if the first thing someone came up with was 'The lead character is an emotionless asshole who I hated' and the twentieth thing was 'I liked the way you described the flowers in the death scene but found it a bit distracting' then I would know that I'd need to work on the lead character's er... character more than pulling back on the pretty peonies.

On the whole, I'm really not sure if what I said made sense. I think you probably put it better. Care to critique my comment?
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2012-10-04 12:09 pm (UTC)
Heh. I think it's important to remember that the critiquing relationship is not actually for everything, too, so I try not to critique lj comments. Or letters from one's grandma. "Well, Grandma, you lost my interest with your account of the visit to that second cousin I never liked, and the letter only really picked up when your friend Clarice had to be taken to the hospital. I would recommend taking Clarice to the hospital sooner next time to move the--oh, there was nothing wrong with her until then? Never mind."

Seriously, though, I think that sometimes there is one biggest thing, and if someone hates the main character, leading with, "The prose was really smooth, um, and I felt like it was really polished work...I hated your main character and wished he/she would die in a fire..." is not going to make the author feel less chagrined. On the other hand, sometimes there really isn't a total ordering of importance, and sometimes going with the most important thing first is going to guarantee that that's the only thing the other person hears. So I think it really varies from critique to critique there.
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[User Picture]From: vcmw
2012-10-05 11:34 pm (UTC)
My opinion on the "shit sandwich" part specifically is that it's one of those areas of language that's hard to have a unified opinion on because the different parts of the sandwich are doing different things. And so the utility of those different things varies wildly due to external factors.

I worked with a woman once who was easily made uncomfortable by question or criticism of any kind... even something as mild as "I don't understand." In order to get a coherent email exchange with her, I had to open with something positive before even asking a question - then close with something positive again. This drove me up the wall so I thought about it a lot.

Here's what I took away from it - those opening and closing statements are about the relationship, not the intellectual issue in the middle. So there are many situations in which they are optional, others in which they're crucial, and some in which they're hypocritical, because they reflect the range of relationships in which the intellectual exchange can take place.

In a relationship with a sort of formal or abstracted dynamic, I think that opening compliment says "I'm happy to be involved in this exchange with you and think both you and the exchange are worthwhile." Then, after either positive or negative middle content [the sandwich need not be filled with shit], I think the closing compliment says "despite how either of us may feel about the intellectual content in the middle of this message, I continue to value our relationship."

So this is why formal academic settings, critique in a workshop where you don't know the other people, etc. may specially value that type of patterned exchange - the relationships are new and/or formal and/or have power dynamics, and need reinforcement.

On the other hand, a person who has a trusted and informal critique partner might be fine with occasionally hearing: "Your plot went kablooie and not in a good way." Or "the perspective in this drawing is just flawed." The relationship isn't threatened by this feedback and doesn't require introduction / reaffirmation. Or the feedback might be entirely positive because the person providing feedback knows the artist starts out thinking every element of the work they've just made is flawed, and so in that relationship it's a given that the critiquer is highlighting the pieces that aren't flawed. In this case the "relationship" elements of the communication are unnecessary.

Sometimes, there is no relationship. A work of literary criticism might come from a school that approaches a text without any consideration of the author; a book reviewer might review a book with an audience solely of readers.

And sometimes, unfortunately, there is a relationship and it is a hypocritical one. I think this is the case that gives the "shit sandwich" both that name and a bad reputation. The critiquer is not interested in a genuine relationship with the creator of the work being critiqued, but feels the obligation to make certain statements, either because they learned a model they don't feel the point of, or because they want to perform a social role. So they say "nice" things that come across as false, trite, or unimportant.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2012-10-06 01:37 pm (UTC)
I support conscious relationship maintenance where appropriate. Sometimes people go rattling on expecting as though their relationships just do stuff as if by magic, and I think the only place in our culture where we're really encouraged to think in other terms is in romantic relationships--and then the places and ways in which we're encouraged to think that way are substantially formal/ritualized and not at all "how do people who are not in a formal/ritualized context do relationship maintenance." Because for a lot of people it sounds like a chore rather than a natural process. So I get what you're saying here, and it's important.

I think, among other things, that promoting this metaphor (the shit sandwich one, I mean) puts one of two models of critique relationship so far to the fore that the others are nearly invisible. One of them is the hypocritical, where the nice things a person says about your story/book are formalized and ritualistic because that is What You Do. (No one ever seems to consider that their critiquer might be overflowing with genuine praise and have to search for bad things to say because that is What You Do. As I said, the suck finds us. But I have found that if a critique is substantially positive--if what you have to say is, "You're really most of the way there, there are only a few small things," it tends to be discounted as the critiquer not giving much of a critique. When really, it can be that with all their thoughts and critical faculties, that is what they came up with.)

The other is the power relationship. Instead of this being a collaboration, where you're assessing and thinking and working together, it is a power relationship wherein you either SWALLOW the other person's ideas or SPIT THEM OUT. And that kind of relationship is a lot less likely to result in discussion like I've had in the good writers' group sessions of critique--"Okay," says the author of the piece, "so it wasn't working for you when Hepzibah didn't notice the purloined letter. What if Perceval got her out of the room? So that she wasn't being quite so dense not to see it?" And then another critiquer chimes in, "But what does that do when she needs to discover Gertrude's knitting needle behind the chair?"

I have no problem whatsoever with some good things about a piece and then some bad things. But the metaphor of the shit sandwich taints the process both as a rationale and as a mode of talking about it, and I really wish people would stop using it.
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[User Picture]From: vcmw
2012-10-07 01:55 pm (UTC)
Thanks so much for the extra time here, because I was totally not catching the right thread of your earlier bit. Yes, it seems to me you're right and the specific metaphor acts in a toxic way, foregrounding as you point out both the hypocritical and the unequal power dynamic possibilities.

I didn't extricate language from process as well as I might in your original post, perhaps because your post and the essay were the first times I'd ever heard the term. So I ended up reacting more to the idea of the model than to the metaphor in my overly long above.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2012-10-07 02:58 pm (UTC)
Hey, no problem. I'm glad that it hasn't permeated your part of the world--I have hopes that it can be less pervasive than it has been for me.
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