I haven’t written an advice-y post in ages. So I decided to write one on something I feel is very important–giving good critique. Critique is actually one of the most helpful things in the world, and being able to accept critique and constructive criticism is a good quality to have.
But also important is to be able to give critique to other people in a way that encourages and motivates them, while still being useful. In the example of sharing a piece of writing, though saying “OHMYGOSH I LOVED IT!!!!” does give a little thrill of happiness to the author, it doesn’t help them improve much. Likewise, being told, “I liked it, but this and this and this and this could have been done better,” is just discouraging.
So let’s find a happy medium: the Oreo Method. Now, I actually heard this called a peanut butter & jelly sandwich, but I decided that I’d apply it to writing using Oreos instead, because I like those better. Yum yum yum.
So, what is the Oreo Method? Well, it goes like this:
Essentially, the idea is to sandwich the constructive criticism inside of constructive flailing over awesomeness. Which may sound like we’re trying to hide the parts that weren’t so good–but we’re not! The inside of the oreo is just as delicious as the outside, which brings me to another point.
The funny thing is that telling about the awesome parts can be just as useful as telling about the potential-for-awesomeness parts, if you do it right. If you say, “I loved it all it was just like a real book!” that’s not as helpful as something like, “I loved the way you described the setting in this paragraph because it felt really vivid, like I was actually there.” Telling people where and what the good parts are is just as helpful as telling them where they could improve.
Should we do an example now? I’m feeling like it’s time to do an example. This is an excerpt from a book I started writing last April, tentatively titled The Blade. I chose it since I think there are a number of things that are both good and can be improved. Let’s look at it:
Sometimes I wished I wasn’t the Blade, that I could be just a normal girl with a normal life sewing and cooking and whatever else normal girls did. But whenever I thought of that, I remembered what Efron had told me that day.
Everyone knew he was growing older, the gray starting to show in his thinning hair, and without a heir, they all wanted him to choose a new Blade. They lined up rows of their young boys, trying to impress him.
I’d watched from my perch in a tree as the man I knew only as the Blade then inspected each of the boys, every one of them standing perfectly still. The process was boring, but there was something about the Blade that interested me. The way he moved, the way he spoke…everything about him was powerful and strong.
As Efron neared the end of the row of the boys, everyone watching shifted uncomfortably. How long would it take him to choose the next Blade? They’d been through thousands of boys already from all over Scronna, traveling miles for their own chance. The Blade passed by every single one of them.
At the end of the line, he shook his head. Angry murmurs ran through the crowd. Why didn’t he just choose the next one already? Why didn’t he do what needed to be done? He was a fool to keep not choosing anyone. Soon, there would be no boys left.
I scrambled out of the tree, hoping to catch a better glimpse of the Blade through the crowd. In my trousers and tunic, I probably looked more like a boy than a girl, aside from the two braids of hair that ran down my back.
Falling in step next to him, I felt like I had accomplished everything. I had something to boast over any other child –I’d walked right next to the Blade. And now I would talk to him. “Hello, Blade.”
“Efron,” he corrected, then glanced down at me. “Who are you?”
“My name’s Riven, if that’s what you’re asking,” I said. “How come you aren’t choosing any of those boys to be the next Blade?”
He glanced back at the boys who were now struggling to find their parents in the crowd. “None of them fit the qualifications for being the Blade. You have to be something extra special to be it. And these boys, they’re all the same. They’ve all been trained the same way. They’ll all become Knives, and some may become Rapiers. The Blade needs someone different than that.”
“Like what?” I asked, not really sure where he was walking to, but content to follow him anyway. I had nowhere better to be.
“I need someone who’s different. Someone who’s not content to just be normal.” Then he looked over at me again. “Let’s get you home now. Where do you live?”
Home. Such a foreign term. I twisted one of my braids between my fingers, wondering if he’d be the one to understand what no one else had understood. “This is where I live,” I said, gesturing to the open air around us. “I sleep under the stars.” The stars were beautiful, spreading across the sky like speckles on the coat of a dapple gray horse.
“You sleep on the ground?”
“Most of the time. If the wolves are nearby then I’ll sleep in the trees sometimes,” I said, watching him intently, waiting for the moment where he’d tell me I needed a home and a mother and a real place to sleep.
“But you have nowhere to stay? I thought no one lived on the streets. Surely someone could take you in and–”
I folded my arms. “Yes, someone could. I’d rather stay out here, and I don’t live on the streets. I live outside of towns, where the grass grows wild and the wind is so strong it can blow you right over if you’re not careful.” My hands were already unfolded, gesturing away. I had been so passionate about it that I could never stay angry at anyone for long, not while I was trying to explain it to them, anyway.
“You’d rather stay outside than in a house?”
“Why not? I’ve never had a home, and I’ve never had anyone to love either. I love the grass and the trees and the sky and the stars…and that’s enough for me.”
Efron gave me a small smile. “I have a preposition for you, Riven.”
“What is it? Don’t try to make me live with someone or anything like that. I could never stand that, ever.”
“I want you to be the next Blade.” He said it straight out, without a single moment of hesitation. It was so unexpected that it caught me completely off guard. “But I’m a girl.” There had never been a Blade who was a girl, ever.
He looked me in the eyes, crouching down so we were at the exact same level, like we were equals. “But you’re not a normal girl. You’ll never be the kind of girl who will stay inside without taking a chance at a fight. You have too much fire in you for that.”
Now that we’ve read the excerpt, it’s time to form our critique, starting with the top of the oreo–some awesomeness. Usually for the first one, I choose an overall thing I liked, or a specific thing near the beginning so that the critique flows in some sort of close to chronological order. Once I choose that part, I start writing the critique around that.
I really liked it! I think it has an interesting premise and I like the interesting tidbits of world building that you show–the Blade is the name of the country’s leader! And Efron says that people will grow up to be Knives, or maybe Rapiers. I’m not exactly sure what those are but it sounds like this country is all about fighting and I think that’s super interesting.
There’s the top of the oreo, where I shared some stuff that I thought was awesome. Next comes the filling, things that could be improved. You might have noticed that throughout this post I have completely avoided using the word “bad” to describe these parts, because even if they are that, we don’t want to focus on that. We want to focus on their potential to become as awesome as the other parts, and how that could be achieved. Usually I put the biggest issue I see in the first slot…for no reason, really. It doesn’t really matter which improvement you select from the excerpt at which time, aside from the flow of the critique.
One thing I was a little confused about was why Efron chose her to be the Blade. Though I think she does make a good Blade, we hardly see any of her personality in this section, and I don’t think what she talks about would really warrant him choosing her–especially if he didn’t pick someone out of thousands of boys. I think an experience that shows her potential for fighting skill or leadership would make it more realistic.
Okay, now for the next part of the oreo, some more awesomeness on the outside. I usually try to make it relate on at least some level with the constructive criticism, so that the transition isn’t jarring.
Aside from that, I thought the parts of her personality you did show were fun. I loved getting to see Riven when she was little! Her conversation with Efron amused me, especially the fact that she felt so proud to be next to the Blade despite the fact he had just walked past a whole line of other children. I liked the style of the flashback too, how most of it was in Riven’s current voice, but the actions still conveyed younger Riven’s personality.
The fun part about this method is that you can either stop there, or it can go on forever. You can either make an oreo stack (awesome, improve, awesome, awesome, improve, awesome) or a double
or triple or quadruple decker oreo sandwich (awesome, improve, awesome, improve, awesome). I just choose whichever one flows better. I’ll do a double decker for this one.
I don’t really understand why she would have lived in the wild and not wanted to have a home and a family. It seems like part of her really longs to have love and acceptance, so why not when she was younger? Also, she must have had a family at some point–she couldn’t have just grown up there. Maybe she finds this out later?
Anyway, I can tell that she does love it because of the way she describes it. The way she talks about the wind and how she compares the stars to a dapple gray horse just feels magical, and almost makes me want to drive into the middle of nowhere and have a campout. 🙂
I could continue and go more in-depth…but because of the length of this monstrosity of a post, I’m gonna stop now. Sometimes when I close, I sneak on another awesome thing I liked, but otherwise I thank them for letting me read it. It’s hard to put your own writing out there, and they deserve a thank you for their courage.
I really enjoyed getting to read this. Thank you so much for sharing it!
And…there’s the end of my critique! Thank you for reading through this ginormous post (if you made it all the way through alive, hehe) and I hope it helps you with your critiques!
What do you think? I was going to post another piece of my writing and have you practice, but I have a better idea! In the comments, post a short excerpt of writing (probably try to do no more than 300 words, since it’s just in the comments) or share a link to some of your posted writing. Then, look through the other comments and practice by giving the other commenters a short oreo critique on their writing! It shall be much fun! 😀