Beyond the Sandwich Method: What I Learned About Critiquing From My Editors



A while ago, before Midnight Thief went out on submission, I had tea with a veteran writer friend. Amongst discussion of all things publishing, the topic turned to editing. My friend mentioned that early on in his career, he wouldn't have been able to judge good editorial advice. It was only after writing several books and growing in his craft that he had the experience to do so.

I distinctly remember wondering what he meant by good editing and whether it really was that hard to identify. After all, I’d put my novel through several rounds with beta readers and felt like I had a good instinct for sorting through feedback.

Fast forward ten months later, when I got my first editorial letter from Abby Ranger. That was when I realized that I’d had NO idea what a good editor was capable of. The difference between the manuscript I submitted and my story now is the difference between a pencil sketch and a full-fledged oil painting.

And not only have I improved my book, I've also gleaned tips on how to be a better critique partner. Here are some of the things I've learned, both from my first editor Abby and my current editor Rotem.



1. Decreasing the suck Vs. Increasing the awesome

When I critique manuscripts, I tend to focus on things that I don't like. But I've come to realize that it's equally important to be look for good things so they can be emphasized -- for example, noting an intruiging character trait that be brought out more, or pointing out intriguing themes that are hinted at but could be developed. A side benefit of doing this is that you decrease your chances of being “that guy.” You know, the beta reader who suggests you rewrite the story to his personal taste.

2. Ask good questions

Some the best feedback that I've gotten was not in the form of specific suggestions, but questions that help me clarify and deepen my story. What does the character want here? What does she learn? Why does she feel this way?

3. A spoonful of sugar ...

I don't consider myself an incredibly sensitive writer when it comes to feedback, but apparently I'm as susceptible to flattery as the next person. I’ve realized that I get more excited about revision suggestions that are phrased in a positive way. And when you think about it, there are many ways to give the same advice.  Saying "The first chapter of your book is boring ”  vs. “Your book would be even more exciting if you tighten the pacing in the first chapter,” are ultimately suggesting the same thing, but I still feel more motivated after reading the latter. Both my editors (and agent Jim as well) are really good at this phrasing suggestions in an encouraging way. You'd almost think that they spend a lot of time delivering editorial feedback to writers or something.

So these some principles I've gleaned from my editorial letters so far. After I finish my revisions, I'll blog more specifically (in a non-spoilerish kind of way) about the changes I've been making to my book. But for now, let me turn the question to you. What kind of editorial feedback do you find most helpful?


Hope you enjoyed this post! To get regular updates from this blog, use the subscription options on the sidebar.  Also, friend of the blog Susan Bradley recently released her YA mystery Unraveled
.  Check it out!


Sixteen year old math whiz, Autumn, spends her days reading about serial killers and dreaming of becoming an FBI Profiler. She never dreams her first case will be so personal. Her world is shattered when she comes home from school and discovers her murdered sister’s body on the living room floor. When the initial evidence points to a burglary gone wrong, Autumn challenges the police’s theory because of the personal nature of the crime. Thinking that finding the killer will bring her family back together, she conducts her own investigation using her affinity for math and forensics, but her plan backfires and her obsession with the case further splinters her family. When her investigation reveals the killer is someone she knows, Autumn offers herself up as bait and sets a dangerous trap to unmask his true nature and to obtain a confession for her sister’s murder.

24 comments:

  1. I felt like editorial rounds with my first novel were like a one-on-one intensive in writing. It was an incredible way to learn and grow as a writer and critiquer.

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    1. Caroline -- me too! I've learned so much.

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  2. I'm not published (yet?) but I've been to writing conferences where editors have critiqued my work, and of course I have a crit group. I love comments like: "Can you find a stronger way to say this?" instead of "This is weak." It's the same thing, but so much kinder. So yeah, I prefer the spoonful of sugar method and I try to remember to critique that way myself.

    But I also like your first two tips. I'm going to try to use those more.

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    1. That's a great example of framing a comment positively, Joanne!

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  3. I like these. I especially liked the one about increasing the awesome. That's excellent. :)

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    1. Thanks Mira. I can't take credit for the "increasing the awesome" phrase though. I picked that up from a random YouTube video about science research of all things

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  4. I love these...I am tagging this to be a tool to use with my own writing!

    Thank yoU!

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  5. Very good tips! I'm sending this to my critique group. Even though I'm self-published, working with an editor has greatly improved my writing - and how I approach self-editing. I feel it helped me make a huge leap upward on the learning the craft ladder.

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    1. Sharon, I hope your critique group finds it useful!

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  6. I was taught the 'sandwich' method by a writer friend, and I have always tried my best to implement it. Once you have had someone use this method on your own writing, you fully understand it's benefits, and you generously apply it to your own critiquing. Thanks for the post, Livia. Very good, and inspiring advice!
    Jeanne
    http://warriorechidna.blogspot.com

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    1. Jeanne - I like the sandwich method, though I find that I can still get lazy from following it. I think of these tips as something that reminds me to take the extra step beyond "I like this, didn't like that, liked this" and to engage with the material a bit more

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  7. Great points; I'll try to remember them next time I critique work. I have found the questions are helpful because they force me to think more deeply about things like motivation.

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    1. Sylvia – I like questions too! It's amazing how they help you flesh out your story.

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  8. This is a great post. Having written a blog post about critiquing - quite devoid of useful information I'm afraid - I'd like to put a link to this post if I may. I think being asked the 'good' questions is the most useful feedback as it really makes me examine aspects of my novel that I've either avoided, ignored or got stuck with or not clarified for my reader.

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    1. Lindsay -- I totally get what you mean by being forced to examine things that you've avoided. I totally avoid things. You know, menial things like character motivation and arc :-) and I need a good critique to pull me back in line.

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  9. Yes, I agree with Lindsay's comments. As a creative writing teacher, finding how to say what I say is a far more challenging issue than finding what to say. And I think from student responses to various teachers at my university, it's fair to say that some teachers don't really care how they say anything. And that's too bad--because they actually have a lot to bring to the table. But what they say gets lost.

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    1. John - I agree. It's actually one of my pet peeves when people trash manuscripts and say they're just being "brutally honest." I don't really buy that. If you are good enough writer to offer writing advice, then you should be a good enough writer to phrase it in a way so that it'll come across well.

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  10. Thank you for this most helpful post. As a former music critic, I would never place myself above the person on the receiving end. I would always engage the ones I was critiquing in order that they might glean from my observations. I always asked for their imput, and as you put it, would suggest additional techniques in which they could improve their delivery. Good read. Blessings.

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    1. Not placing yourself about the person you're critiquing sounds like a great policy, Johnny.

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  11. Interesting post and looking forward to the next! :) In my own writing I tend to *want* more negatives from friends... because I know my "enemies" are gonna be out for blood. LOL! Better to take the arrows in private and fix the chinks in your armor before you take it out to the battlefield for real!

    Fiction writing is a bit different though: no one's going to be actively trying to find ways to attack your work, and your main concern is simply producing something that people will enjoy. So when you ask someone to look it over and give feedback, they should either give the "enjoyment" sort of feedback or, if it's something you want, an "editing" sort of feedback. Your posting on the topic brings out some good details of thought about what goes into feedback overall!

    Extra note: that summary of UNRAVELED is GREAT!!! If I had a YA daughter/friend right now it's certainly something I'd get for her!

    :)
    MJM

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    1. Michael - I'm very much for negative feedback, even with fiction. Like you said, better to get it in private than in public later on! So my take away for this article is not so much that you shouldn't give criticism, but that criticism is more effective when phrased in a positive way.

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  12. For me, the most helpful editorial feedback is what you touched on already: the stuff that's not coming from someone's personal opinion ("that guy"). And by "opinion," I mean ideas that aren't related to narrative theory/principles of narrative construction. It's amazing how many self-proclaimed editors & consultants don't seem to know the difference.

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  13. As a writing coach, I`m much more often on the giving than the receiving end of feedback. One of the best questions seems a bit dumb at first, but I`ve found it most helpful, especially for first-time authors: What EXACTLY do you want to say her? (What exactly happened, whar exactly does the protagonist think/feel/do here?) Which, put another way, simply reminds the writer to be precise and choose the strongest words and sentences possible.

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