“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!