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Mar 19, 2021

The Poop on Critique Partner Duties

By: Joanne Steel Yordanou

You’ll be doing your critique partner a favor in stating what stage you’re in with your work. There are some writing teachers who give profound advice about both writing and critiquing. Then you can check off what you need from your partner: High-level feedback; Grammar; Line-by-line; Plot feedback; Character feedback; and Other. You may have read Lisa Cron’s description of giving up plotting and pantsing for your protagonist’s internal struggle in The Story Genius or Robert McKee’s dissection of substance, structure and style in Story and these things may be swirling your mind as you read your partner’s piece. But a writing teacher once taught me about the poop sandwich, and it is this brown burger that you should keep in mind as you critique your partner’s work.

Everyone writes bad chapters, stories, and pieces, but we usually edit it until the cows come home, up the wazoo, and ad nauseam, but some don’t. Some give you their first draft to sludge through with hip-waders. Shame on you for not noting in your profile that you will only look at polished drafts or ones that have been edited at least ten times or checking their profile to see where they are in their writing. Whether you are looking at first drafts or an almost-ready draft, think poop sandwich.

The poop sandwich begins with saying something positive about your critique partner’s piece. It could be “Great plot!” though the syntax suffers, or “I really like your protagonist” or “I love how you described your setting.” Find something to bolster the writer before you take a swing at their baby. Then comes the dirt. It is not something you don’t like or hate or ticks you off. It is a constructive analysis of a piece in order to uncover its virtue and polish it to a gem. For every sentence, you will opine: is it a good, better, or best version of itself, and how might it be best? Rewriting the sentence does nothing to help your critique partner, but asking questions will help, like, “What does she want to happen in this scene?” or “Why doesn’t she consider the fall-out from her actions?” Provoke your partner to look at their work differently. If a scene doesn’t work for you, say so and why. “I don’t buy that she doesn’t care about X. There must be something redeeming in X for him to be in her life or in your story. What is it?” Poop could also be something your partners haven’t thought about, such as, “why hasn’t your detective tapped the phones” or “why hasn’t your monster fled because of their own ugliness (think Frankenstein)?” Your poop could simply be that you don’t get the sentence because of syntax, or because a word or idea is missing. Whatever your poop is, it is GOLD to your critique partner, every last nugget.

Then comes more bread, the pleasant fluff to bolster your partner’s writerly ego. “I really enjoyed reading this” (be sincere!) or “Your story is fresh and original, and I found your protagonist engaging and funny” or a kinder, “Though I found reading this a bit bumpy due to spelling and grammar mistakes, you’ve got a really good story going on,” or “once you flesh out X’s real desire and internal struggle, you’ll be on the way to a fantastic story,” are all encouraging sentiments and leave a better taste in your critique partner’s mouth than the poop you just dished out. 

This is one method for new critique partners to get their footing with before critiquing. Some have graduated onto more rigorous editing/critiquing but only as we fall into the groove of how receptive, tough-skinned, or demanding our partners might be.


About the author
Joanne Steel Yordanou (rhymes with piano) published her knitting book 12 Months of Knitting in 2008 with Potter Craft, a Random House division. She’s studied fiction writing with Brian Henry and has earned a degree in English Language and Literature with Queen’s University. She has had two short stories published on, another in Queen’s University Anthology 2019, and an excerpt from her first novel, Love and Terror can be read on Brian’s blog (now shelved as her “learning” novel). 

Joanne is searching for a literary agent for her current novel Off the Grid which is now being read on, as she works on a new novel. Joanne and her husband have two young adult daughters and a Lab mix dog, and live in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada. You can find more about her work at