You know, you just don’t know that you know, you know? A few words on the ‘feedback sandwich’

A few weeks ago, I went live on Facebook to talk about the biggest thing I learned in my fiction editing course, and how I thought it could help you, too:

So, you’re probably familiar with the idea of the feedback sandwich.

On the top layer you have the light, fluffy feedback, the recognition all the things you’ve done well. On the bottom is more of the same; a final reminder or reiteration that you’re working on something great, that you’ve done a lot of good things, and a plea for you to not be discouraged. And in the middle…well, the middle is where you’re crushed by the knowledge of all you’ve got wrong, and all you have to fix now. This is the bit that makes you want to slam the computer closed and go eat some ice-cream until you feel better again. The thinking seems to be that the more praise you can put in, the easier the criticism will be to take. And the easier it is to give, too.

In my editing course, run by the wonderful Ann Bolch of A Story to Tell, the art of giving feedback was pretty much lesson one. Actually, it was the pre-lesson one homework: make sure that the author can see the strengths of their writing, rather than just the areas for improvement; don’t scare a writer into scrapping it all and throwing the baby out with the bathwater. This is very important, but it wasn’t until we started writing our manuscript appraisals that I got it: it’s not about saying “You’ve done this well, you need to work on this, this, and this, but don’t forget you have done some really good things”, it’s not a case of using the good to mask the bad. Instead, it’s about saying “Because you’ve done this, this, and this so well, I have every confidence that you could extend this skill or technique to improve these areas, too”.

This is absolutely the best part of my job: showing people that they already have it in them to create the most engaging, exciting scene, or a beautiful, rich setting that is so well described that you’re instantly transported there. And from that basis…who knows what’s possible?

Which brings me to that very well expressed “You know, you just don’t know that you know, you know?”

So, say you’re great with characterisation but you’re not sure about how to create an immersive setting. Maybe it would help you to think of the setting as another character- as well as a basic description, there must be something engaging about it, something important, something that makes it individual and important to the story. Maybe thinking of the setting as a character will help you to think about the character interacting with the setting, playing off against it, engaging with what it has to say or what it represents.

Or, if characterisation isn’t your forte but you’re great at setting, use that depth, use that attention to detail, that playfulness of the waves on the sure or the rummages in the undergrowth, to inspire you to notice the minute habits of human interaction- the looks, the glances, the intonation of voice.

Ultimately, a good character is not too different from a good setting or a punchy line of dialogue:
just focus on your why, on the reason for creating this interaction, character, or story in the first place. Map out or list all the hints, the tension, the nuance you want to convey, understand clearly why and how this furthers the plot, and start writing.

So, try using your praise to address your criticisms. Re-read the feedback you’ve already received from family or friends or your writer’s group bravely, and see what they said your manuscript’s strengths and areas for improvement are. Trust your strengths, and try going back to the things you weren’t happy with and thinking about them a different way.

I hope this way of thinking helps you get back on track, or serves as food for thought.  And, If you’re not really sure how to tell what’s what, I’m here to help.

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