Wednesday, 11 March 2009


Praise is very like chocolate:
  • it tastes great at the time
  • too much of it is (regrettably) bad for you
  • it (regrettably) needs to be balanced with the sensible stuff
  • once tasted, you want more and more of it
  • people give it to each other to show love, to bribe them, to make friends, and because giving and receiving are linked
  • you should sometimes reject it
  • it has been scientifically proven to be beneficial to mood
Pause to go and eat some, just so's I can remember. Method-writing again.


So, we all need it. Praise, I mean. But actually, it's not like chocolate because ALL chocolate is Truth Incarnate (except mint flavoured white chocolate, which is pure evil and doesn't deserve to be called chocolate) but some praise is False and Must Be Rejected Forthwith.

And I don't mean that it's false because the person delivering the praise is lying. Just that they're wrong, irrelevant and not worth listening to. Sorry. No really. I am. I don't like saying this. But believing that sort of praise is the worst favour you can do yourself as a writer. Would I lie to you after all this time?

Praise from someone who doesn't know what the hell they're talking about is worse than mint flavoured white chocolate. Or those pale ones from Marks & Spencer that have absolutely no chocolate in them at all and make me gag. Oh and M&Ms - I nearly walked out of the cinema when my husband was eating M&Ms. All that vacant crunching and crappy plastic smell and not a hint of genuine cocoa. Am I showing myself up as a chocolate snob? Well, in that case I 'm a praise snob too.

You should become a praise snob. If you really want to hone your writing and get published, learn to do two things with praise:
  1. store it in the cosy bit of your brain to boost you when you have no chocolate
  2. analyse it, judge it, assess it, and be HONEST about it (Is that 4 things? Call me generous.) And sometimes, reject it.
Here's my fool-proof guide to assessing praise, in the context of "Is This Praise That Is In The Slightest Bit Relevant To My Getting Published?" Of course, praise about your hair-style, dress sense, new lipstick colour or new car is entirely outwith the remit of this blog, and I would have to charge a fee for such extension of my adjudicatory powers. Essentially, all writing-related praise should be thoroughly discarded (after thanking the kind donor politely and not actually saying that you've been told to ignore them by a crabbit old bat from Scotland) if it emanates from the mouths or keyboards of the following. Oh, and may I say that as individuals these are often perfectly lovely people, just that they're not qualified to praise your writing in any kind of practical sense, though they may be accidentally correct?
  • your parents, grandparents, children - other blood relatives may very occasionally give acceptable advice, but only if they are not:
  • members of your writing group - I'm sorry, now I've really blown it. Sorry, guys: it's that you've got issues that get in the way. Like, you're really wanting to boost the self-esteem of the writer, and it's lovely of you, it really is, but you're psychologically, morally and ethically connected, (and you may be actually in their house and drinking their wine) and it's not possible for you to be objective (unless you're really cool, and I don't mean cool-trendy); OK, I relent: occasionally your writing group may have a point but ... will you know when that point arrives??
  • other unpublished writers, unless they have publishing credentials, in which case listen to them (unless they fall into the blood-relly category)
  • anyone who doesn't have publishing credentials or some other reason to Know
  • especially the above if they're sober - alcohol is a great honesty boost
  • your friend
  • your dog
  • anyone on a blog
  • anyone on Amazon
  • anyone posting an anonymous review, as it's probably your friend, dog, parent, publisher
Look, I know you hate me now - and we were getting along so well. I KNOW praise is important - god, I'm delicate enough that I need it too. I'm absolutely not saying ignore all praise: I'm saying assess it. I'm saying be honest with yourself. Some praise is fab but some is simply air. Poisonous air at that.

Ask yourself two questions:
  1. Does this person actually genuinely know what they're talking about?
  2. Is this person giving the praise entirely out of the blue and not because I happen to have put them on the spot by asking them for an "honest opinion"?

This post has come about because I see people being held back from publishing potential by clutching at empty praise and ignoring the much rarer really constructive criticism, which could actually improve their writing and pull them towards genuine success. Of course I love it when people say nice things to me but I grow much more from the negative points - the girl who asked me why I wrote such long chapters, the comments from readers who didn't like a certain ending - and then the praise from the specific people who I most respect because they KNOW and they are HONEST and I DIDN'T ASK THEM FOR AN OPINION.

There are people I know who are renowned for being honest in their criticism and those are the ones I work hardest to please because I know they won't say it's good if it's not. I so respect people with the guts to be honest - and I admit that I'm not one of them. (You surprised??) I know that occasionally when a friend has written something I didn't really rate, I've said some nice things. That's the problem, it's so hard not to. People say, "Be honest," but they don't mean it ...

The worst places are some online communities and forums. You see people going on-line and off-loading and everyone piles in with all the oh dahlings, and poor you, and don't worry WE know you're fab, dahling. When they haven't even read the thing that's been rejected. And of course it's lovely and kind and generous and right in lots of ways but in terms of becoming published it's so so so detrimental.

I feel really bad after this, but I'll have to steal myself and click "Publish". I really don't mean you to reject all praise but a) don't go seeking it because if you ask for an honest opinion from a friend/colleague/equal it will be highly unlikely to be entirely honest and if not entirely honest then somewhat pointless (except in a chocolately sort of way) and b) when you get praise, consider this: that if you accept praise, logically you should equally accept the negative stuff. Such as the rejections by professionals ...

And now I really am going to wimp out: you're all fabulous, dahlings. Think about it - how does that sound?

Perhaps I should more constructively say: hold all praise briefly to your heart and then let it go and focus on improving your writing.

Before I go, I should also pass you over to a post on How Publishing Really Works a while back, which illustrates this very beautifully and much more pithily than my typically over-long rant has. (Oops, Jane, that sounds like praise.)


Sarah Hilary said...

Great post, Nicola, thank you! One thing I'd add: I'd apply the same tests to criticism, constructive or otherwise. I think a lot of writers, myself amongst them, can be easily swayed into rewriting something because someone has told them it doesn't work or would be better if... A writer's confidence is a fragile thing, and we need to find a place where we can judge, at least a little, the value of our writing. That can be hard to achieve if we're getting blanket praise, but it can also be tricky if we listen to EVERY piece of criticism without some objective rules by which to judge that.

Jane Smith said...

Nicola, you're right, of course, and particularly when you tell everyone to go and read MY blog (which you've said some very nice things about... I'll not think about that too hard!). I blogged about a similar thing recently, and so here's another link to send your readers over to my blog:

As for chocolate: the absolute best I've ever had was a tiny box from Valrhona. One of the chocolates had little flakes of real gold scattered on the top of it. Oh, it was gorgeous... the gold didn't taste of anything but the chocolate was divine.

Nicola Morgan said...

Sarah - excellent point and I quite agree. It's all about assessing the worth of whatever feedback we get, isn't it? Balance etc.

Jane - the only thing that puts me off about your chocolate heaven is the word "tiny".

Anonymous said...

I joined a writing group -- an agent suggested I get some critiques around my story pacing (and I thank her forever for such a wonderful rejection letter!)

anyhow it was hlarious -- we all had to read stuff ahead of time, so I sweated over the peices...

now also be aware that I am a professional trainer and facilitator so give feedback a LOT...

so I spent a lot of time (believe me, sometimes it was a LOT of time) finding positive things to say about the writing samples -- and framing my less complimentary thoughts in a constructive way (Eg "I loved the idea of this fight scene, really original -- I wonder if it would be more effective if you took out the dream sequence part way through as to me that threw me off track a bit"

so we get to the end of the sessoin -- and they tell me not to come to their group again as "your energy is too negative and you are not supportive of the other writers"

there ya go...


Nicola Morgan said...

Oh god, CJ, I bow down before you. I am planning a novel about just such a writing group but you have just presented me with a whole new character - the one whom the writing group rejects! You are just what we need - HONESTY.

Jo Franklin said...

Luckily for me, those nearest and dearest to me won't read my work so I'm not going to get any praise or criticism from them. No support either for that matter.
I did read an early draft of a story to my daughter (aged 6) who said 'It's good Mummy but I don't understand it.'

Nicola Morgan said...

Oh dear, jo - but it sounds as though you actually have a very useful daughter!