Beginning writers are often told that they have to learn how to take criticism because they are too new to their craft to know for themselves what works and what doesn’t. However, the wrong kind of criticism does little to help aspiring writers learn; instead, it suggests that they do not possess the mystical ability needed to write well.
The first time I presented a piece of fiction to my Masters cohort, the general consensus was that my classmates wouldn’t read work in the genre I had chosen, but thought my work was horrible anyway. I sat through irrelevant comment after irrelevant comment, wondering if I was really ready for a Master’s program, since I clearly couldn’t take harsh criticism. The only thing that stopped me from dropping out was another teacher telling me that my work was excellent prior to recommending some improvements. Beginning writers are often told that they have to learn how to take criticism because they are too new to their craft to know for themselves what works and what doesn’t. However, the wrong kind of criticism does little to help aspiring writers learn; instead, it suggests that they do not possess the mystical ability needed to write well. I almost gave up after my experience in a Masters level course; sadly, many writers don’t even make it that far. I have found that the best way to inspire new writers is to focus on the positive—what works in the piece. Learning to praise well is an art form that one must work on; our natural tendency, unfortunately, tends to be to tear down and discourage rather than inspire and encourage. Here are a few of the techniques of constructive praise. I use these techniques when working with adults in my writer’s group, as well as with disabled children learning to write for the first time. • Be specific. Global praise (“this is wonderful!”) is as useless as harsh criticism. The person being critiqued tends to reject global praise as “not really true” and doubt his or her abilities even more. Instead, communicate exactly what it is that worked for you in a given piece. • Be fully focused on positives. Don’t try to “sneak in” a critique by couching it in positive terms. Sometimes it seems as if we need to point out the negatives in order to help a writer move to the next level. In actuality, however, the writer “fills in the gaps” when presented only with positive opinions, deciding on his or her own to make needed changes in the work. • Tailor your praise to the writer’s current skill level. Nobody can go from struggling to Nobel Prize winning overnight. However, everybody can grow as a writer, reaching higher and higher levels of skill. When I’m working with a writer, I like to point out how much better they are doing in an area they have struggled with in the past. I find this helps boost confidence and allow the writer to continue to grow. Praise-based criticism is not appropriate for every writer. There comes a point in the writer’s development where he or she outgrows it and is ready for a more intensive critiquing process. However, for the beginning writer, specific, positive praise can be a godsend. This allows the writer to begin feeling confident in his or her abilities and explore different writing styles and techniques. Stephanie Silberstein is the owner of Narrow Path Publishing and the author of two novels. In addition to writing, she runs a biweekly writer’s group and works with first-time authors on boosting their writing confidence while getting their manuscripts ready for publication.