The Shit Sandwich.

At some point in learning to workshop and critique, we come across something called the Shit Sandwich.

The Shit Sandwich is basically this: when you critique someone’s work, start with something good (the bread).  Then tell them the problems (the meat… er, sandwich filling).  Then end on a good note (more bread.)

I had another teacher whose method was more of an open-faced Shit Sandwich–go around the room with everyone saying what works, and then go around with everyone saying what doesn’t work.  There’s a nice simplicity to that, though it means things potentially end on a negative note.

I have mixed feelings on the Shit Sandwich.  I like it as a teaching tool.  I hate it as a workshop participant.

One of the things I discovered as I began teaching is how very necessary it is to give positive feedback, particularly for new writers.  Out there, in the big bad world, you really can’t depend on anyone to be positive about your writing.  It’s wonderful if you have have supportive friends and family and (perhaps more importantly) a writing community, but few people have than when they start.  Out there, you are not guaranteed encouragement to keep writing.

The other thing is that the Shit Sandwich forces both teachers and students to think about what is working.  It’s so much easier to see what’s not working–it jumps out at you like a coffee stain on white pants.  You have to actually think about it to really notice the nice fabric that makes up those pants.  (Note to self: wash white pants.)

But the problem with the Shit Sandwich can be illustrated by the time someone said the following to me: “I’m not giving you the Shit Sandwich. I really do like this.”

Since most writers have a really powerful inner critic, it’s hard enough to trust positive feedback without wondering to yourself “Wait, do they really think this is good, or were they scrambling for bread on this Shit Sandwich?”

It’s the formulaic sandwich structure that makes this tool both useful and hard to trust.  You have to come up with bread.  But would it be there if you didn’t have to have it? It’s difficult enough, sometimes, to trust in people’s positive feedback without wondering if they are only saying that because they’re giving you the Shit Sandwich.  Or because they believe they are saying something nice because you are supposed to say something nice.

The other issue with the Shit Sandwich is that so often the negative things take a long time to explain, where as the positives are “Great read!”  Um.  That’s some thin bread around that giant mouthful of shitty filling.

Then there is worrying about how someone will take something so much that you start couching and qualifying your words in a way that only suggests your point rather than actually stating it.  That’s not an unwarranted worry–as writers, we’re all super-sensitive.  But as someone who has been known to miss the point a number of times, there’s a lot to be said for clarity.

Perhaps sometimes we lose sight of the fact that saying that a work needs work isn’t necessarily a negative.  Is “Your basic structure works well; once you fill this out some more it will be fantastic!” really a negative?  Not for me; telling people how you think they can go from “potentially great” to “actually great” is a good thing.  I haven’t really encountered a lot of writers who go into a workshop believing that their work is perfect and only wants people to tell them so.  Perhaps, however, those people don’t frequent workshops; they submit directly to literary magazines and publishers. (I have seen some crazy things in the slush pile.)

I think my overall point here is that you do no one any favours by not being clear and honest in a workshop.

But….

That doesn’t require being mean or negative or being formulaic in how you deliver the message. And feedback means talking about what works too.

Thoughts?  Comment below.  (And no, you don’t need to give me the shit sandwich in your comments.)

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5 thoughts on “The Shit Sandwich.

  1. Ha ha. Great read! Seriously, it is challenging to come up with the right words for the shit and the right words for the bread. I personally prefer a beautifully fresh baked challah bread because hearing something is great without hearing why it’s great makes the positive comment useless (that weight watchers bread). If an editor can make the connections I worked so hard to build, then I feel great. And then if they point out where the connections fail, where the tone doesn’t match the voice or where the narrative slips or when an editor suggests a completely different vantage point or a new narrator, when they come up with those nuggets of well-read intelligent commentary, that fluttering excitement builds in my belly. I love the workshop, period. In all shapes and forms, no matter what, it makes me look at my work with a bit more objectivity than when I walked in (with the secret security that the story is just going to rock their world!)

    • Absolutely Ali. It’s the substance behind why something is great that is important, versus empty flattery. It shows that the person really, truly gets the story, really connected with it, and really wants the best for it. Hard not to love that.

  2. I think it’s really important to listen and share that first impression, even if it breaks the formula, even if it means there’s far more shit than bread. For my money/bread, I’d prefer my fellow participants to get to the shit as quickly as possible. I tend to gloss over the positives and go straight to what they think needs work—while I enjoy reading what’s working and the gushing that can happen, and it can be a nice confidence booster, reading it isn’t going to make the piece better. For me, the shit is the good stuff (how quotable is that?!), even when I don’t take the advice—which is often enough, as there’s so much feeling and subjectivity in writing, and a writer needs to listen to their own voice and vision.

    • I too, am a big fan of the shit. Teaching, however, has made me more conscious of my tendency to gloss over the positives, since sometimes I have students who are very new to writing and very nervous about it. (In the MFA workshop I’m a lot less worried about that; different expectations of participants.) I still remember a fellow student in my very first creative writing class. We were all new to writing and writing classes. She was a fantastic writer, but very nervous. We spent a little while raving over what was great… it’s been 10 years and there’s still an image from there that has stuck with me. We then spent a longer while raving over what needed work–she had 10 stories in the space for 1, but all 10 could have been terrific. I thought it was a great workshop, but she never came back to class. I’m still sad about that.

  3. I think it’s really important to listen and share that first impression, even if it breaks the formula, even if it means there’s far more shit than bread. For my money/bread, I’d prefer my fellow participants to get to the shit as quickly as possible. I tend to gloss over the positives and go straight to what they think needs work—while I enjoy reading what’s working and the gushing that can happen, and it can be a nice confidence booster, reading it isn’t going to make the piece better. For me, the shit is the good stuff (how quotable is that?!), even when I don’t take the advice—which is often enough, as there’s so much feeling and subjectivity in writing, and a writer needs to listen to their own voice and vision.

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