After a writing retreat with one of my two writing groups, I am reminded of the importance of starting any critique session with appreciation and compliments, but not just any kind of compliments. Saying things like, “I loved that” or “you rock,” aren’t particularly helpful.
In any kind of feedback group, there is a tendency to go right to the criticism and skip the appreciation. It’s just human nature. We feel the boat is sinking and we need to plug up the hole. Talking about the nice paint job on the way down doesn’t make any sense.
Part of this problem lies in the fact that we are always in a rush. Another part of the problem is that there’s a prevalent feeling that we are all getting too soft, that teachers are pumping up their students’ self-esteem at the expense of high standards, and that if your feelings get hurt, that’s your problem, not the problem of the person delivering the criticism or insult.
However, as I watched one of my writing colleagues begin her reading with a hopeful look of anticipation, and then watched her deflate into exhausted confusion as we criticized her, I thought we were doing her a real disservice. She looked like a swimmer far from land who is losing strength and sense of direction, and all we were doing was telling her how wrong her swimming stroke was. She said, “I don’t know if I can trust my own perception, anymore. I thought I was on the right track.”
Here’s the thing. The reason it’s important to start a critique session with compliments is not to make the writer feel good. It’s to show the writer that you have heard, seen, or understood where they were intending to go. So much of writing is necessarily taking a stab in the dark (letting go of the conscious mind’s dictums and letting the unconscious mind well up and take over). It’s as important to have your audience reflect back to you where you were hitting your mark as it is for your audience to reflect back where you may have missed.
I’ve said elsewhere, but it bears repeating, the positive comments aren’t just saying, “I love this,” and “that’s good,” they should be descriptive. For example, “The image of the wolf at the end gave me to understand that you were intimating that your mother’s spirit may have been reborn as a wolf.” Likewise, the negative criticism can be given as a compliment, “The impact of that line isn’t reaching me like I want it to because I’m distracted by alliteration in the middle of it.”
Yes, it’s validation, but the purpose of validation isn’t just a feel-good pat on the back. The more important purpose is to create trust. Descriptive and specific positive feedback about what you think the writer is achieving helps the writer to learn where and when to trust herself, but just as importantly, it helps the writer to trust her fellow group members. If the group members have understood where she is going, then their advice about where to go next is useful. If it turns out that the group misunderstood where the writer was going, then the writer can think about how she needs to revise to better direct her readers.
Compliments aren’t for sissies; they are an essential orienteering device for any writing group. They create the compass points for that session which buoy’s the writer on her way.