I think there are huge parallels between working with critique groups, editing and leading creative writing workshops in a Higher Education setting. However, they are not all exactly the same.
An editor has to help the writer get the text exactly right for their reader, the publishing house and the market (yes, I’m afraid that exists). Most importantly the writing must also be right for the writer and an editing process must involve some confirmation of voice.
In the workshop and the critique group we are looking at improving the text generally. The critique group has the aim of making the work publishable at some point in the future though as yet has not identified the exact publisher. The university workshop attempts to bring the writing up to a standard that matches the mark descriptors for the particular module.
My workshop comments at the university are often more rigorous than the ones offered in most critique groups. Yet even here, and indeed in editing, I like to include encouragement.
The “sandwich” method –a variation
The sandwich method involves saying something positive, something critical and then something positive again.
Here I offer you my take on this. I start off with everything that is good about the text. There will always be something. The main idea may be interesting, a particular character may be well drawn or certain sections may be well written.
I then point out what is not working so well. If I’ve noticed a lot, I may only mention what makes the most impact.
I then make a suggestion about what the writer might do next with the text. I try to identify one or two strategies that will make the greatest impact on improving the text.
Focussing the feedback- getting the vocabulary right
Try to avoid the word “like”, though this is very difficult. It’s better to say “This character comes across really clearly”, “Your dialogue is very strong here” or “I can really feel the tension in this piece.” If you must use “like” say why.
Annotating the text
If you have time it is good to do this. Here you pick up everything you notice: the missing apostrophe, the character who seems wooden, the hole in the plot. It’s important here also to make positive comments. I’m pretty strict with myself on this: at least ten comments per submission with a 50:50 balance between positive and negative. The “sandwich” comments summarise the main points. The two together provide really valuable feedback.
Some valuable feedback
It’s always important for the writer to know whether the readers have understood the text. So it might be very effective first of all for critiquers to say what they have understood form the text. This might be followed by any specific questions a writer has about their offering.