on the preferred methods of delivering feedback
When I write an editorial letter, I write them to a particular form. I call this template The shit sandwich. It looks like this:
- compliments, effusive praise
- reminder that the book is very good, encouraging note
The bun is the nice stuff, the shit is the hard, difficult detailed feedback.
Listen, I never said it was a good metaphor.
Anyhow, I’ve been thinking about it because I saw someone recently talking about how much they hate doing the “bun” parts. The framing of the effusive praise felt artificial to them and pointless. But the author knows I love the book, so why go through this exercise of talking it up when we both already know I’ve bought the book and clearly love it?
I’m here to explain why the shit sandwich matters. To explain why I don’t ascribe to the Atkin’s diet version of the method, wrapping my notes in a flimsy sheet of warmed-up lettuce and forcing you to bolt this shit-brick in one sitting.
(wow, this metaphor is getting really unpleasant)
Putting aside the fairly obvious reasons for placing harsh, specific deconstruction of someone’s book in brackets of praise — so they don’t, for example, spend the rest of the day crying into their coffee or throwing themselves off a bridge, the effusive praise serves a specific, and powerful purpose and must not be skipped.
I don’t just tell the author that their book is good and pat their hair and tell them they’re pretty. It’s an alignment exercise. I try to explain why I love the book so much and point out all the elements they do well — if the prose is good or if a particular character stands out or if the pacing is very strong, it is useful for the author to know what not to worry about along side what needs fixing.
And more importantly, it’s important that author and agent/editor have a compatible vision for the book. It’s not just “you did a good job” it’s a chance to begin the work of defining what this book is. If I think the book is primarily a thriller with excellent pacing and strong characterization and you think the book is a moody meditation on grief and loss, then this is a moment where you can realize wait, my editor doesn’t understand what this book is, their notes are going to be heading in the wrong direction. Or, alternatively, it’ll start a conversation where the agent/editor can convince the author what the book they’ve written actually is rather than what they think they’ve done.
If an author is to take your notes seriously on what must change with a book, then you must first agree on what is good about a book and what the book is for. Aligning your vision at the outset, and again at the end, is the only way to ensure both author and editor share the same holistic view of the project and its aims so that it can be adjusted, trimmed, expanded, and grown to fit the territory defined by the collaboration.
It is a such a common trope to see the editor as a scold, someone there to tell the writer what to do and how to do it. There are editors that work this way, many of them legendary for their work, but there are more of us who choose a different, more collaborative path. You have to show the writer what is possible and then explain what must be done. And without the framing, the content is merely a joyless task list and the outcome weaker for it.
In thinking about the shit sandwich, I can’t help but think about the film, Jiro Dreams of Sushi. A film that spends as much time talking about rice as it does fish. Because, as Jiro points out, when you eat a piece of sushi, you’re mostly eating rice. Don’t forget the bun. Learn to love the bun. Learn to use to bun for your purposes. Love the shit sandwich. It will lead you to better stories.