Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The other kind of critique

By Julie

“So, just to be clear, you liked it.”

“Yes. I really, really did.”

These were a few lines near the end of last night’s episode of Parenthood, one of my current TV favorites. Single mom Sarah Braverman (played by Lauren Graham) has devoted most of her adult life to cleaning up after her now ex-husband and making sure her kids are adjusted and happy in spite of the mess. She chokes up and tears glisten in her eyes as Mark Cyr (played dashingly by John Ritter’s son, Jason), her respected friend – and her daughter’s English teacher – praises her first attempt at story writing. Genuine, from-the-heart praise. Sarah is finally doing something for herself, and it’s working.

We spend a great deal of time talking about the value of critique here at What Women Write, about how much better it makes us as writers even when it hurts. Today, I want to talk about the other kind, because I believe it’s valuable, too. In fact, I’ll go out on a limb here. I believe at times, it may be more valuable.

The other kind I’m talking about, obviously, is praise.

To be sure, critique that draws our attention to the things we could do better, or to the things at which we fail, is useful and necessary.

Sarah expected that kind of critique from Mark. She went so far as to spout off about how she knew what he was going to say, giving her own modified definition of what we call the sandwich critique – two or three positive things followed by the things that need work followed by a final positive note. Then she proceeded to do what we’re always warned not to when facing critique – she couldn’t help interrupting when he tried to tell her his thoughts, already prepared with the excuses she thought would explain the shortcomings she assumed he’d list.

When Mark finally got a word in edgewise, Sarah was stunned. I don’t know about you, if you saw this episode, but me? I choked up right along with her. Tears threatened my eyes, too.

Because I remember those moments in time. I remember how – as Sarah felt validated by Mark’s praise – I felt validated by those who praised my writing early on.

And last week.

I mentioned in my interview with Barbara O’Neal that the words she gave me during an online class are some of the ones that have kept me going even when I felt like giving up.

At one of my first writers’ conferences, the La Jolla Writers Conference, I read some of my early manuscript materials during a group read-and-critique session with Linda Lael Miller, one of the most prolific romance writers around. And one of the most generous. Later, during a quiet moment at the book signing event, she wrote inside the cover of her novel and handed it back to me. She looked me in the eye and said, “And I don’t say that to just anybody.” She’d written, “Julie, you are very talented.” I floated on that for several days.

Right now, I’m waiting on feedback from a few first readers about my recently finished manuscript. A week or two ago, my heart beat a little faster when I opened a text message from one of them – something to this effect (because the message was deleted … sigh): “I think you have really got something this time.” And several more sentences where she gave me specific reasons why she was immersed in my story and characters.

When I sit in our infamous retreat sessions with my dear What Women Write friends and hear my voice shake a little while I read, knowing my fellow writers will be tough on me, I also become emotional and “filled up” again when they praise me.

It gave me immense pleasure last week, after reading the first half of Susan’s manuscript in a record four hours because I literally couldn’t put it down, to send her a short email describing how in awe I was of her novel so far and begging her to finish it soon so I can hear the rest of the story. Sure, there were nitpicky things I could have commented on, but the heart of the story is fabulous. Susan knows I’m not an easy critic, and I meant every word I said.

Of course there are times when praise really is just an empty compliment – someone just trying to be nice. After a few years of riding this pony, I think most of us can tell the difference. And sometimes, that difference is what gives us the fuel to keep on riding this road to publication.

Be wise with your criticism. Be generous with your praise. Be true with both.

These may be the words that give your friend, your daughter, your critique partner, or even a complete stranger a reason to carry on.

Do you have a story you’d like to share about the other kind of critique? We’d love to hear it. Leave it in a comment or write a post and direct us to it in the comment section!


  1. A beautiful post, Julie! I think we forget sometimes how important praise can be. We're so keyed into the "How can I make it better" that the praise may go unnoticed. Thank you for the reminder.

  2. Thank you for posting this, Julie! I don't mind getting work back with lots of red ink so long as there is something in there that indicates the person doing the critique thought I was doing something right, too.

    In college I had a professor who was tough to please. I handed in a piece that I thought was great and it came back to me as an incomplete with a note saying he knew I wasn't saying what I wanted to say and that the grade would change when I found my courage. I rewrote it and he handed it back with a giant A+. The note on there said that I had an A in the class even if I didn't do any of the other assignments that semester.

    Another proud moment was when I wrote a fan letter to an author I greatly admire and she wrote back and said that I could really write myself. She has since said she is greatly looking forward to reading my book.

    It's always important to remember to point out the roses as well as the thorns.

  3. Love this post, and I have two things very recent and very precious to my heart.

    First is three weeks ago, the day my agent called to offer me representation. One of the few things I remember vividly from that conversation (because I was so freaked my brain melted down and sucked my memory with it) was something she said. She said she was going to have to read it again for edits, because she honestly forgot to look, she got so into the story she was just reading for pleasure instead of as an editor.

    That meant more to me than I can ever say.

    The other thing was when I read a story my daughter wrote...she's 16. I know she was waiting for me to point out the flaws, but I was so blown away by the raw awesomeness of it, all I said was "wow". The look of joy on her face was priceless.

  4. I remember WAY back when I was querying my first novel (oh the horror) One agent, a very good one, said "This could be a great novel." And she asked for revisions. Now on novel number four with number three about to go out on submission with my current agent (not the one above) I've often thought I'd add her any acknowledgment I ever get lucky enough to write. Though the revision of that novel never sold her... the fact she thought it could be "great" kept me going through my darkest days. Great Post!

  5. Sharla, congratulations on your new agent! I am sure you are still floating on air three weeks later. And now, good luck with submission. Let us know when you get a deal.

    Julie, this is a great reminder. I'm pretty good at the critique part as we know, but I sometimes forget to give the praise. Hopefully the people I critique remember that the more suggestions I make, the more I think of the work. So when you get a page full of red from me on a beta read, if I forget to properly praise, do remember that every red mark stands for ten times more kudos!

  6. thanks, Elizabeth! I am still in awe, and now being on sub, I've become a stalker of my

    Wanted to let y'all know I linked to you on my blog post today!

  7. Jenna, I think we can use this reminder in every area of our lives, not just writing. Praise is often neglected in our worry about making sure our kids or employees or other folks get it "right." Fingers pointing back at me ... :)

    Sharla, I already said so on your own blog post, but YAY!!!!! You have some exciting times ahead! I love it when I get so into a story I can overlook the little nitpicky things. And I love the story about your daughter.

    Suzanne, I seriously meant to add to the end of my post something like this: "And it just might cause you to end up in someone's acknowledgments!" :) Good luck on your submission, and let us know when your next big day happens! (i.e., you get your offer!)

    Thank you all for coming by WWW today.

    Kim and Elizabeth, I think we (all six) do pretty well at praise. Maybe sometimes our fear that our negative critique will hurt too much causes us to forget the things we said that were high praise, too. I think unless we are so glassy-eyed we can't think (haha ... thinking of the time at our last retreat when I was so tired I was somewhere off in lalaland ... poor Kim and Joan got the brunt of our exhaustion, I believe!) the praise flows in the right amounts.

    So glad this topic inspired some conversation today.

  8. "Be wise with your criticism. Be generous with your praise. Be true with both."

    I love that!

    I remember when I sent the last version of my manuscript to my writer's group, and one of them texted me to tell me she was really blown away by the new beginning. I was at the library at the time, so I had to hold back my squeals, but it really made me want to scream and dance because it felt so good.

    You're right that honest praise is just as necessary as honest feedback. The feedback gives us direction, but sometimes we also need the validation to keep going.

  9. During classroom critiques, the professor always cuts me off when I try to speak a response. Mostly because being silent in any capacity is difficult for me but also because I'm then talking and justifying rather than listening. I'm a lot better than I used to be. Now before I speak I ask, "Can I answer that?" (But I don't always wait for an answer).

    Honestly, I like getting back marked-up manuscripts because they show effort and that someone actually cared. However, I think praise is just as vital as constructive critism.

    Give as much praise and affirmation as you do sassing and teasing. Doesn't always work, but it's a great rule of thumb.

    <>< Katie

  10. Natalia, that feeling is the best, isn't it?! Love it. I sure hope you did some screaming and dancing later ... outside? :)

    Ohhh, Katie, I have a hard time keeping my mouth shut, too! I've heard people say that you should remember that when someone reads your book, you won't be there to answer back when they have a beef with something so you might as well get used to it. But it's so hard when they're right there in front of you, huh?

    I like marked-up stuff, too. (You should see what I hand back to people ...) But yes, I agree that when you get something full of comments, it means they really took the time to do it right.

    Thank you for reading!

  11. This morning I woke up to praise that will make me walk on air all day. I'm relating this here because I know my critique partner will read it and I want to publicly thank her for calling me on it when I could do better and lavishing on the praise when I got it right.

    After I sent Joan my last chapter she said, "This was very painful to read, but I found I wanted MORE. More tension, more uncertainty." She suggested a POV change that I felt I couldn't do, but I tinkered with it because I saw her point.

    I sent it back yesterday with a note that said, "For the record I hated every minute of composing this." She replied this morning with this:

    "For the record, this is AMAZING...I'm not just saying that because I asked you to make changes. And you did it so skillfully that you didn't even have to go into his POV. Genius."

    Words like 'amazing' and 'genius' would not mean so much if I didn't know Joan Mora. All of us at What Women Write know she doesn't say such things lightly.

  12. That's awesome, Kim. I can just see the little smile on Joan's face as she typed that comment. And, of course, the huge one on yours as you read it. :)

  13. Kim--I never would have pushed you if I didn't know you had more to put on the page! I hesitated because I know how personal the book is to you, but glad you graciously took my critique. Carl is smiling, too, I believe.


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