Grits and Purls

Spinning yarns about the grit of life

I make the bold claim to be a writer—because I am a writer. I even get paid to write. I also make the even bolder claim to be a good writer—because I am a good writer, good enough to be published in several venues, good enough to be paid to write. On top of those claims, as if they aren’t enough, I claim that I can teach people improve their writing, and I can. My writing workshops and articles about writing are popular and in demand.

However, anyone who is brazen enough to make the above claims becomes a target. You become a target for anyone who had a bad experience in English composition, or the writer who has just been rejected, or the writer who hasn’t yet developed the courage to hit the “submit” button for her latest composition. You also become the target for all of those other good writers out there who spend their time trying to help others around them become better writers.

I know because, at one time or another, I have been all of those writers; I have been on both on the shooting and receiving end of all of this target practice.

Just the other day, though, I received a comment on a blog entry that I had written for my employer. The subject was clarity in science writing. The comment stands out in my mind because it was unequivocally positive; it was simple praise, a compliment unaccompanied by the “I liked this, but…” that often makes up evaluative statements.

I can’t tell you how good that comment made me feel, but I can tell you how it made me pause. If an unadulterated complement on my work made me feel so incredible, how do my comments on other people’s work make them feel?
I’m not saying that we should all become Miss Sunshine, only providing compliments and never giving constructive feedback where it is needed. What I am saying is this: when you have something positive to say about another person’s work or actions, say it. There is no requirement to accompany praise with criticism. There is no requirement to find something wrong with every work that you review. There is no requirement to find “an opportunity for improvement” for every person you evaluate. Sometimes, “you’re doing great work, just keep it up” is sufficient.

As a former college professor, I think our schools (public and private) have accepted too much trash and lazy writing from students. (The same is true for math.) I can’t tell you the number of biology majors, all intelligent students, whom I sent to the writing center for remedial help because they could not organize a cohesive paragraph, much less a research report or review paper. As a professor, it was my responsibility to point out where these students needed to grow and do better.

As a professor though, it was also my responsibility to give praise where praise was due. This doesn’t mean merely finding one positive thing to comment on before the “but”—the stinging barb. Frankly, telling a writer “I like the font you chose,” before going on to note that his 500-word essay had no thesis, 20 misspellings, 50 grammatical errors and didn’t really make any sense, doesn’t make the author feel any better. Work that genuinely deserves praise simply deserves praise. Work that doesn’t, doesn’t.

As a parent, part of my responsibility is to instill high personal and academic standards in my daughter. For her to perform consistently well, she needs occasional, unequivocal praise. She needs to hear, “good job, keep up the good work”, when it is deserved. And, it is often deserved.

So, when wielding your red pen, don’t hesitate to correct, if that will help the person improve. When I ask a colleague to review a piece for me, I expect honesty and critique that will help me improve my writing. I can always grow as a writer. However, when work deserves simple, unadulterated praise, don’t hesitate to give it. You will make someone’s day much brighter.

© 2009 Michele Arduengo. All rights reserved.

One thought on “The Importance of Occasional, Unqualified Praise

  1. sylviamorice says:

    Michele, you certainly make a good point; praise alone is often all that is needed to spur someone on to even greater achievements, while praise given along with ‘constructive criticism’, especially unsolicited criticism, can lead to a sense of failure, of not being good-enough (whatever good-enough is).
    I agree that if you ask for a critique of your work you should expect honesty and a thorough editing/proofreading review in order to produce the best you can possibly offer; otherwise, provide praise if praise is due, and leave the rest to the critics, as we all know there are enough of those to go around.

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