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.