Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Beware of praise

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. I call it method-writing.)


So, we all need it. Praise, I mean. But actually, it's not like chocolate because 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.

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 (That makes more than two things but I am being generous.) And sometimes, reject it.
Here's my fool-proof guide to assessing Praise That Is Relevant To 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 and not revealing 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. As individuals these are often perfectly lovely people, but 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 relatives may very occasionally give acceptable advice.
  • Other unpublished writers, unless they have publishing credentials, in which case listen to them (unless they fall into the blood-relly category).
  • Anyone else without some specific reason to know that about which he speaks.
  • Your friend.
  • Your dog.
What about members of your writing group? Tricky. Be very careful how you regard their praise, well-intentioned though it is. Thing is, you're psychologically, morally and ethically connected, (and you may be actually in their house and drinking their wine and eating their Moroccan chicken). Occasionally your writing group may be right, but you should listen more carefully to their criticism. Treat their praise like the chocolate that it is. Yummy but to be treated with caution.

Look, I KNOW praise is important - I need it too. I'm 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 genuinely know what he/she is talking about?
  2. Is this person giving the praise entirely out of the blue and not because you happen to have put him/her on the spot by asking for an "honest opinion"?
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.

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. 

The worst places are some online communities and forums. You see people going on-line and off-loading about how an agent or editor has rejected them or said something negative and everyone piles in with 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 but in terms of becoming published it's so detrimental because it fails to encourage the writer to consider whether actually the negative points might have been worth something.

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

[Adapted from a much earlier post. There is also more advice about finding and dealing with quality  feedback in Write to be Published.]


Anonymous said...

Great post. So true. For me, there's one person above all who I try hard to draw praise from; my agent. If she says something good about my work, I know she means it. How do I know this? Because when there's something she doesn't like, she gives it to me straight. 'No,' she says. 'I don't like that. That's no good at all.'
That puts me right in my place.

Patsy said...

I like praise as much as anyone, but criticism is more helpful. If a fault is pointed out we can try to correct it.

Rebecca Brown said...

Apart from making me REALLY need some chocolate now, thanks for that, this was a great post. There's lots of advice to not take rejection personally, it's only one opinion, etc, which is helpful when you have a bruised ego but praise combined with constructive criticism from a reputable source is worth its weight in gold. Or chocolate.

*dives into car and zooms to supermarket for bumper pack of mars bars*

Dan Holloway said...

I was always told white chocolate isn't actually chocolate but solidified cocoa butter, so the rule remains untarnished.

Very true about a lot of writing sites!

Funny thing, praise. I know very few people serious about writing who would ever listen to a word of praise (do people really believe the good stuff they're told? I always thought they smiled sweetly and said thank you to be polite). What we listen to is the negative, and we need to be every bit as careful which bit of that we take to heart.

JO said...

Great post, and I so agree about some online forums - not only the don't-take-any-notice-of-the-nasty-agent comments, but also the your-writing-is-brilliant-now-read-mine variety.

My writing group can be useful on a micro level, but there's no time to work on bigger plot issues. And we're an interesting group - we know who is fragile, and we are kinder to them. A couple of us are regularly given a hard time - but that's fine.

I am so lucky - have a wonderful daughter who loves me enough to be unflinchingly critical. So she helps me get it so far - and then off for a review that I pay for, from someone who doesn't know me and has no reason to massage my ego. That's when the chocolate really comes in handy.

Helen said...

A very timely post for me- on my way to uni to have my work critiqued in my MLitt class. I'm not expecting huge dollops of praise but if any comes my way, I'll be sure to very carefully assess it. Thanks!

Jim Murdoch said...

Perhaps because I’m also crabbit, Scottish and a wee bit of a chiropteran myself (not sure what the male equivalent of ‘bat’ is so we’ll go with that) I tend to dismiss pretty much all praise unless it’s from my wife and I can assure you that if she says anything I write is ‘good’ you can believe it’s excellent; not all family members dole out praise where none is due (I got none whatsoever from my either of my parents) but in general I agree with your assessment and take my daughter’s praise with a pinch of salt.

I think you can tell when praise is genuine and can be taken seriously. What I like is when I see my name mentioned in a post that’s not directed to me, where someone is telling other about me – like recommending my blog – and this is the first thing I’ve heard about that; that happened yesterday and fair cheered me up. I tend to trust praise when the praiser can answer a simply question: Why? That goes for criticism too. That doesn’t mean that if someone who doesn’t know what they’re talking about praises you you should sniff at it – some of our readers are going to appreciate us on a very superficial level and their praises are valid and should be acknowledged and appreciated – but we need to keep such praise in perspective.

One of the areas that worries me the most is the book review. I write books and I review books. Occasionally I review books by people who have reviewed one of mine or who I would like to review one of mine somewhere down the line and the temptation is there to ignore your principles and just praise their book into the ground so that they feel duty-bound to do the same for you. That’s like cheating in exams. Yes, they might give you the glowing review you want but was that necessarily the glowing review you deserved?

JeffO said...

I'm with Helen, very timely post indeed. My wife just read my MS and has come back with a lot of praise (and so did my sister-in-law). That's great, it feels nice. My wife probably thinks I'm nuts, though, because I keep asking her, "Great, but what is *wrong* with it? What *doesn't* work?" I have to tease the criticism out of her, a little at a time. And yes, it is being read by someone who has no stake whatsoever in my success.

Unknown said...

For me, the most interesting environment is the weekly writing class, in which we are all careful not to say anything negative. You can tell; the atmosphere becomes crisp and fragile.

I've learnt to infer what might be wrong from the comments which are not made, as on the lines of 'damned with faint praise'.

Although I don't like criticism I have a tougher skin now and I feel I can take more of the critical stuff (I don't want to say 'negtive').

The praise from friends and family, I file as 'encouragement' and I think that is the best way to look at it. Praise from an industry professional is of course, pure gold.

Tyler Tork said...

I see we are in agreement on the issue of white chocolate.

Tyler Tork said...

Fiona, I think a writing class in which people refrain from saying anything negative is fairly useless. In my writing group, I'm there to learn what I need to fix, and I need people to just spill it. We lead with the positives, but don't hold back when there's something not working.

whispering words said...

Thanks for this, I admit that I do love praise but strangly, I get really worried if there is no critism lol

Lauri said...

But this is sort of the reason why I find it impossible to get good readers. I have one. One person I allow to read my work and whose opinion I respect.

But too some writers don't want proper criticism, they only want praise. I have made a vow now to say nothing if it's crap. People really don't want help. I've put in my time, I've been told what's what, and now I'm done.

Margaret Morton Kirk said...

Hmm. Maybe it is a Scottish thing - I don't quite trust praise, don't believe it.

I belong to a really good on-line writers' group, with a number of published writers who are endlessly helpful - even so, I still wonder if they're somehow pulling their punches when they say they liked my stuff.

Oh, and there is no such thing as white chocolate - it doesn't even have any cocoa solids in it, just nasty white fatty stuff and no cocoa solids. Yuk.

Katalin Havasi said...

I think most writing communities are in fact support groups and not critic groups. Praise in a support group is like milk to babies. Easy to swallow, tastes good and makes us able to go on and grow.

Solid food is harder to swallow and meant to be eaten by more developed persons/writers. Criticism is the hardest of all to digest and only adults can handle it properly. Others tend to spit it out like a nasty pill.

Now enough of philosophy, got to go and eat a block of Godiva Extra Dark Santo Domingo Chocolate, with a glass of milk.

(White chocolate = cocoa butter + milk solids + sugar.)

Nicola Morgan said...

Dan - you are so right about being careful about which negatives we take to heart. Yes, it's not just praise that can be a problem. We do have to realise that a criticism may be simply individual personal response and not relevant to what we're doing.

All - thanks for your comments. It's really worth noting that for some of us our OHs/parents/kids *are* great critics and for others they are not, either becasue they are too kind or because they don't know what they are talking about. The key, obviously, is in working out who is the desired critic/praiser. In some ways it's Stephen King's Ideal Reader.