Tuesday, 4 August 2009

In praise of praise

Is it acceptable to tell another writer that you enjoyed their work when, quite frankly, you would rather be trapped in a lift with Barney the Dinosaur singing I Love You than ever have to read another sentence in your entire life?

The opinion frequently crops up on the web that undeserved praise is wrong, not only because it involves lying (which we would never do in any other situation), but more importantly because it doesn't help the other writer to improve. What's the use of family and friends falling at our feet and telling us we're the next Emily Brontë and they can't see a single flaw in the entire 250,000 words? And that the twist at the end, where the narrator turns out to be a cat, is pure genius!

No, proper writers need tough, tell-it-like-it-is advice. For those on a contract deadline or battle-hardened by the submissions process, wishy-washy praise is useless. They want to know, preferably NOW, what works and what doesn't.

But I think there's a time when it is helpful to dole out that wishy-washy praise, and that's when a beginning writer shows his or her work for the first time.

There is just not much to be gained, in my opinion, from criticising a writer who is just starting out. Even suggesting the removal of a few adverbs can be downright mortifying to someone who has newly experienced the passion and excitement of creating a story; that wire-to-the-heart feeling that seems too perfect to have produced anything bad.

It is odd, now that I'm constantly strewing words left right and centre through novel-writing, blogging, and social media, to remember how terrifying it once was to show people anything I'd written. But I do remember. I was sick with nerves, and vulnerable. Vulnerable because it felt as though I was exposing my own thoughts and feelings; that people would think the characters were all me – yes, even the murderer. They might say it was rubbish. They might read the whole thing with no change of expression and then point out one typo. But worst of all, they might laugh at the idea that this silly deluded kid thought she could ever become a writer.

When people complimented the story, that was the best thing that could have happened for me, even though deep down I knew they were only being nice. (It was crap. Really, really crap.) Their politeness – OK, lies – gave me the confidence to try another story, to improve naturally on my own, to start to know from experience what worked and what didn't and, later, to seek and accept genuine criticism.

I can't tell whether I would have given up writing in the face of an early knockback – probably not – but it would have been difficult to maintain the excitement if the spectre of other people's criticism had been hovering above my pen.

Some say it's cruel to get people's hopes up – it just feeds their delusions and leads to crashing disappointment. But I think it's great if we get our hopes up. Hope is a Good Thing. Encouragement gives people the self-assurance to develop their talent, to bring more work out into the open, to risk discussing it with others and to realise how it can be improved. An 'honest' critique for an early piece of work could, by contrast, inhibit someone's potential to become an excellent writer.



15 comments:

Rosy T said...

Interesting post!

Personally, I've never read a piece of work, even by a beginner, where there isn't SOMETHING that I can pick out and praise with honesty. It might be the idea, or a character, or some of the turns of descriptions or turns of phrase. I think that being told which things are working in our writing and to hang on to - or which ideas are good and worth pursuing - is vital in the early stages. After that, well, it doesn't seem quite so damaging to lay into all the things that are wrong. In the nicest possible way, of course!

Derek said...

Too true!
A friend and I did WIP 'novel' swaps, with an agreement to provide feedback. I took it way too seriously and misread where they were on the writing curve. I tried the 'shit sandwich' approach - a plus followed by a minus followed by a plus. Regrettably, the person was really wounded and stopped writing for a time, even though I pointed out the many positives in their manuscript. It's as important to know why they want feedback in the first place.

battypip said...

I think I agree with Rosy T - it's much more valuable to pick out something good to honestly praise. I'm not too far away from being a beginner myself, but even though I know I'm not a fabulous writer (yet) I know what good writing isn't, so if you said how fabulous my work was I'd know you were lying. On the other hand, if you said you really loved the ending of my story because the way Mrs Miggins reacted to Bert Sotherby's betrayal was portrayed with vivid depth, I could see the truth in that and, if I was ready, take the implication on board that the rest of the story doesn't live up to the ending.

On the other hand, I've met writers who can't take criticism, all they want is praise, so what can you do?

Caroline Rance said...

Just a very quick reply to say I'm out all day today so won't be able to respond to comments until this evening - not ignoring anyone.

Like everything, it so depends on what the individual wants - e.g. a beginning writer who is genuinely receptive to suggestions, or a more established writer who has a hissy fit at anything less than adulation. And yet it's difficult to find out what people want because often they don't know or won't really say.

CarolineG said...

I think you just can't tell how much a person will improve either. I've seen some huge leaps in skill when it comes to friends and their writing. I think I would have curled up and died [metaphorically, at least!] if snyone had been unduly harsh in the earliest days. Also enjoyed the linkde post from Susannah, which I somehow missed last week!

Sue Houghton said...

I agree with Rosy T in that there's always something to praise even in the most badly written piece. It's getting the balance right with a critique - being constructive and respectful especially in the early days of someone's writing career.

Karen said...

I don't offer my writing for critique these days until the whole thing is written, because I know from past experience that if anyone bursts my 'bubble' I'll take absolutely ages to get going again - though I've got a much thicker skin these days :o)

Family and friends were always polite and positive, but I could never take their comments seriously!

A friend and I do novel swaps too - a chapter a week online - but purely for deadlines and encouragement. No critiquing allowed unless our writing was SO dreadful and there were so many mistakes that we couldn't contain ourselves! It's worked really well and we both have a completed novel to work with now.

Geraldine Ryan said...

I think we all know, don't we, what's good and what's crap in our writing, even in the early days. I agree, a kind word is valuable, but I was always able to detect the bullshit and hated, hated, hated it. The only criticism that has ever mattered to me is that which comes from people whose writing opinion I value. And I would have much rather have had a "shit sandwich" as Derek so beautifully describes it, than gooey praise.

In a writing class full of beginners, however, you have to be careful, I agree. You have to read each individual student and tailor what you say to each person. I'm not always a fan of peer criticism, I must say, because students can be far harsher to each other than a teacher ever would be.

Samantha Tonge said...

I can't tell you how helpful the harsh comments on my work have been - twice making me abandon 2 projects which, in retrospect, was such the right decision.

Can't say there haven't been tears, but it's always the negative comments that are more fruitful in the longterm - the praise is just a short-term high.

Having said that, i would never offer up a critique without finding some postitives. And i would never be overly harsh with a true beginner or someone who's book is published but didn't 'do it' for me.

Poppy said...

"I think we all know, don't we, what's good and what's crap in our writing, even in the early days."
- eek. I don't always!!

Absolutely spot on post. I totally agree. I've always thought along these lines. But now i feel awful because i recently gave quite a harsh crit to a young writer on another forum where the zeitgeist is very much 'if you can't stand the heat get out of the kitchen'. But i don't think that's necessarily the best approach. Not at all in fact. Depends entirely on where that person is at.

As a teacher, there are times when the best, best thing you can do for a child is to praise it for something. Pure, unadulterated praise - no qualifiers.

RosyB said...

Great post. Still thinking about it. I hate these "suck it up" forums and websites. I don't think being a writer is about being bullied or patronised or being forced to doff caps to whoever decides to set themselves up as the fount of all knowledge. You need to develop your own sense of who you are and what your work is and what you think about it. Easier said than done, of course. But some of the sneery and - plain mean - crap on the net boils my piss (to use a lovely phrase!)(Sorry, needs must.) :):)

Caroline Rance said...

Sorry to be so late to respond to comments - thank you all very much for your views. :)

Fionnuala Kearney said...

Sorry I'm late getting to this Caro and am still giggling at the 'shit sandwich' and 'boiling of piss'....
I thought this post was spot on. When I think of what I wrote as a complete beginner (and this was way before today's internet forum possibilities) if I'd had the nerve to post and been knocked back? I think I'd have run for the hills and never been seen again. We are vulnerable when we put ourselves out there and yes, more experienced writers expect and benefit hugely from a constructive if harsh critique but complete beginners - they need a little massage to help them on their way....

Olivia Ryan said...

Really interesting post. I agree that I'd always find something to praise in someone's work if they asked me for an opinion - but I have also given honest criticism where it was asked for. I'd expect the same if I asked for opinions on my own work. But to be honest - I never do! Professional criticism, as in rejections from editors, are one thing - they can be disappointing but are all part of the business. But criticism from friends and family ... I'm afraid I'd find it very hard, and would probably take it too personally and hate it. So I don't show anyone (apart from my three lovely daughters) my work till it's been published - and I don't invite opinions! If they say they enjoy it, that's great. If they keep quiet, I gauge that they didn't like it. I just don't ask! Am I a total wimp?

Susie Nott-Bower said...

I started this by writing that I totally believe in praise. Now I've crossed that out and I'd like to say that I totally believe in encouragement. Writers are like plants - some are hardy enough to grow/survive even in the most barren places, but all benefit and flourish from regular sun/watering/nourishment. Praise seems to address what's been completed. Encouragement embraces the courage to create.