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The Criticism Sandwich by Eleanor Ball

Don’t know about you, but I can be cripplingly sensitive when it comes to feedback. Actually, to hell with it, I DO know about you, dearest new bang2writer chums, because we’re all creative and therefore much of what we do comes from deep within, unless we manage to roboticise the process. A cold word about something that I’ve poured my soul into (even though my soul is currently on the market if you’re interested) can turn me from confidently chipper to wildly scribbling down plans to leave the industry and run away to raise mustangs in the Nevada mountains.

Of course you can harden with experience. There’s all these blogs in which the writers share what stony criticism they’ve received that day, only to blissfully announce the very next day that they have a great new idea. Even though the LAW says they’re supposed to have committed suicide by then. All I can do is stare at the screen in dazzled hero-worship and yearn for the day when I’ll have their hard skin. But I’ve also heard from seasoned writers who throw themselves under a boat the moment they hear the slightest hint of criticism, so unfortunately experience isn’t a sure-fire remedy for creative sensitivity.

As for giving criticism without puncturing the heart (ego?!) of a writer, one of the most common pieces of advice is THE CRITICISM SANDWICH. Self-evidently, the idea is to “sandwich” your criticism between two slices of good feedback. Great setting, crap idea, and well done for using recycled paper. Criticism sandwich. But what an ambiguous term. You wouldn’t normally eat two pieces of bread on their own. But surely we gobble up good feedback?! Good feedback is nourishing. But criticism is the vegetables on the side of the plate that you don’t really want to eat, but you know you have to because you know they’re good for you.

… Okay, I’m getting my food analogies muddled up. I’m going to break for lunch.

Anyway, when it comes to the criticism sandwich, don’t we sort of know the game already? Yeah we got it figured. If we hear some good feedback we know the bad stuff is on its way, especially when the good feedback is suspiciously irrelevant, or even decadent, as if they’re scraping the barrel a bit. I really liked that bit on page 15 where Sam is wearing orange trousers. I loved that there wasn’t much swearing. I enjoyed that the vampire was a lesbian.

Maybe it’s a wee bit patronising to assume that we need a bit of ego-strokage before we can handle some important and constructive criticism, but then again, maybe that’s a good assumption. I certainly feel better after a bout of useless compliments, even if they are just token and tact.

But putting aside potentially condescending tactfulness, maybe the real problem with the criticism sandwich is that it puts “positivity” and “negativity” in two completely different camps, telling us that we can hear only “good” things and “bad” things. So the issue is a writer’s approach to feedback, and the tendency of some to hear constructive criticism as a dire personal insult worthy of leaving the industry and running away to live with wild mustangs.

Eleanor is on the MA Scriptwriting degree at Goldsmith’s, specialising in comedy drama. Join her on Facebook here and read her own blog, here.

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3 thoughts on “The Criticism Sandwich by Eleanor Ball”

  1. Great advice Eleanor. Also, I have found that the more you allow your work open to criticism and feedback the thicker your skin becomes. I like negative feedback, it tells me the areas I can improve thus creating in the end a sharper script.

  2. Hey Eleanor

    I think how we receive/perceive feedback is definitely influenced by experience, with time playing a hugely important part in that.

    It's natural to want a positive reaction to anything we do, but reactions to writing do seem to create a bigger divide than a lot of other endeavours, maybe because many writers feel they are much more in competition and subsequently a lot of folks really struggle to deal with feedback – in a way that makes feedback work for them positively.

    I have found that the longer I have been writing, the less interested I have become in receiving rapturous feedback (from my peers, that is, I obviously want the enthusing to come from the Big Charlie Potatoes waving their cheque books) but it has taken a lot of years to get to that comfortable position of genuinely feeling that.

    I think it might have a lot to do with many writers wanting validation from those that aspire to the same writing heights, so when they receive negative feedback from one of those folks, from one of their own, it wounds their pride more. It's hugely symptomatic of a craft where it's easier for all of us to spot errors in other's work, yet be blinded by our own mistakes, so after dazzling all and sundry with our fabulous ability to point out issues in other works, it can come as a huge learning curve when our own work is hurled back at us, exposed as being lacking in any number of ways. Ouch!

    So, there you go. If anyone ever reads any of my work, you now know I'm only interested in hearing the shit stuff.

    Even if you will ALL BE WRONG.

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