Friday, October 15, 2010

Kind words that fuel the fire

Yesterday was a good day.

I was still basking in the glow of the “fan letter” I posted on the blog when I headed off for work (yes, I started a new job – part-time so I can stay focused on writing).

Mid-way through the workday, the boss threw me a last-minute project that called for some fast creative copywriting. I did it, sent the file, and was eating leftover lasagna at my desk when the boss walked in beaming and holding the printout.

This is why we hired you.”

Such a simple statement – only six words – but it totally made my week.

I’m going to go way out on the limb of total obviousness and say that humans need positive feedback to keep ticking.

Author Cynthia Reese and I have worked together as critique partners for 6+ years, and one thing we’ve always cited as a reason we work well together is that we both have hides of Teflon. We don’t get our feelings hurt, and we don’t flinch over negative feedback. We don’t need to be coddled with compliments or have criticisms sugar-coated in any way.

And yet when I get a critique back from her, I still feel warm and glowy each time I see those three little letters – LOL – inserted in random spots to indicate where something I wrote made her laugh out loud.

I don’t care if she follows it up with six pages of notes describing the precise method I should use to dig a hole in my backyard and beat myself over the head with the shovel until I fall in – those three little letters are enough to keep my spirits high.

There’s something called the “sandwich method” that’s common for writers doing critiques or judging contests. The idea is that you offer negative feedback “sandwiched” between two pieces of positive feedback, making the negative a whole lot easier to take.

I’m a big fan.

I’m not suggesting it should be done in a contrived way, or that you should offer anything insincere or meaningless. “I really like the way you capitalized the first word of each sentence,” will probably not achieve the desired result.

I’m also not suggesting you should limit it only to the writing world.

But even a small shred of something genuine and positive can be enough to buoy someone’s spirits. Newbie or New York Times bestseller, writer or non-writer, everyone needs to hear something nice about themselves. It’s easy to forget how much fuel a few simple words can offer, but they’re the things we store in our subconscious and drag out to keep us going out when setbacks threaten to crush us.

Do compliments make you warm and glowy? Do you try to offer them regularly to writing pals or loved ones, or is it tougher for you to do? Please share.

And hey – that’s a really nice shirt you’re wearing. Brings out the color in your eyes.


Harley May said...

Yay you!

Unlike you and Cynthia, I do not have a hide of Teflon, but have learned to take critique better the more I get it.

Words of validation and affirmation hit me right in the chest. They sometimes make me cry.

Heart you, Tawna.

LS Murphy said...

Compliments keep me going! Even with negative feedback, I feel like my goals are totally acheivable from one little compliment!

Tom M Franklin said...

"And yet when I get a critique back from her, I still feel warm and glowy each time I see those three little letters – LOL – inserted in random spots to indicate where something I wrote made her laugh out loud.

I don’t care if she follows it up with six pages of notes describing the precise method I should use to dig a hole in my backyard and beat myself over the head with the shovel until I fall in – those three little letters are enough to keep my spirits high."

i'm right there with you. the comments my QP (Hi Jessica!) leaves for me that tell me she completely gets what i'm trying to communicate make me feel like i might just be able to actually write. (and when she tells me she loves my characters, well, double that)

-- Tom

Linda G. said...

I'm a LOL slut, myself. A well-placed LOL in my ms can make up for a ton of other criticism. :)

Matthew MacNish said...

Well I can say from first hand experience that a critique from you and Cynthia is absolutely top notch. I will admit that it was really helpful and encouraging to have some positive feedback in there as well but it really wansn't a 2 to 1 ratio, even though I understand the term isn't meant to be literal.

Still what made the biggest difference for me was the WAY you put your "negative" feedback. You both usually formed a question (unless Cynthia was pointing out an obvious grammar error) and made it clear that nothing is absolute. The thoughts and questions were so astute that there was no way I could not accept them, even if they had been worded more harshly.


Anonymous said...

I agree, I need to know when I've done something right. Validation is awesome and inspiring! And on that note, Huge CONGRATS on your 3-book deal and write up on Wolfson's agency news section!! I can't wait to read Making Waves!!! And you shouldn't be flabber and ghasted when ppl tell you they read your blog! YOU ROCK! And that's not the dork in me coming out!!! LOL!

Beth Mann said...

So happy for you to gain some praise - well deserved I am sure!

This post is timely for me in my writing journey, since I'm getting ready to go to my first writer's conference and am totally freaking out! So many other bloggers and friends have reached out and given me encouragement, and it is SO helpful. If left to my own devices I would probably wander around unshowered and groaning every day (as it stands I only do that once or twice a week ;P )

Great advice on critiques, too!

Christi Goddard said...

I'm wearing a red shirt. I'm sure it brings out how bloodshot my eyes are from lack of sleep and persistent gazing at my monitor.

I get more negative feedback in actions than words, or at least I tend to take it that way. I can take criticism with open ears, but being ignored or overlooked drives me batty. Then again, I'm already a bit nuts.

LynnRush said...

OH yeah. What a great compliment. Yep...I can live weeks and weeks on a little compliment like that.


Great post. Have a fantastic weekend!

Danica Avet said...

And Tawna, may I say your shoes are just divine!

My CPs and I have the same method, I suppose. I don't do it on purpose, but when I see something I like, I'll say 'Ooooh!! What's going to happen next?!' or "LOL" I love it when I see it in stuff I get back from them. If everyone keeps up the positive reinforcement, then no one will be discouraged to the point of quitting.

Brooklyn Ann said...

You nailed the sentiment with alacrity. I live for those bright spots of positive. I believe that without them, it is harder to fix what's wrong with a project.

Patty Blount said...

I crave positive feedback and compliments more than I do chocolate and that's really saying something.

I think it's because I don't hear them very often. People tend to growl about what's wrong instead of praise what's right. Very common in tech writing. When was the last time someone told you, "Buy this product, the user guide is AWESOME!" ??

And here I am, subjecting myself to fiction writing - another field where praise is rare.

Thanks for another great post.

Kadi Easley said...

I laughed at your last sentence. I'm wearing a worn out gray hoodie and sadly it might bring out the color of my eyes as they are red this morning. I stayed up too late last night working on a quilt.

I always try to start a critique with something good. My editor does the same thing, thank goodness. The first edit letter I got from her was 18 pages long, but that first golden page said my writing was great and she loved my characters and couldn't wait to hang out with them again.

After that, if she'd told me to go out with Tawna and take turns with the shovel I'd have done it with a smile.

Geoffrey Cubbage said...

It is SUCH a nice shirt, and O Best Beloved always steals it because it brings out the color in her eyes, too.

Pro tip: marry someone with a contrasting complexion. To cut down on the number of strangers that say "oh, is this your sister?" if for no other reason.

Always a good read, Tawna.

Candyland said...

The sandwich method is the best. As a writer, you've got to assume there's going to be some things that need work but it's the compliments that keep us going.

Unknown said...

Hell yes! I love compliments. Besides, My Barracuda )My Beta-reader) loves to leave snarky replies for each chapter.

There was once where she was commenting on a description of an old crone and mentioned that it was to be her younger brother's future wife! Some of the things she comes up with are priceless and I already have her permission to start posting some of my "Snapped" chapters after my book is on it's way to puplishing. I might even consider posting some before ...

Anywho, the last thing she did was to comment that she was going to murder me if she didn't get the next Chapter today on my blog. I'm just guessing she didn't like my Cliffhanger/Twist combination at the end of Chapter 21 ...

demery said...

Love the sandwich method idea! And I also love my writing group - we've been together so long now that we have that trust and care between us that makes us able to say whatever is needed. Thanks for a week full of LOLs. :)

Sierra Godfrey said...

Compliments DO make me warm and fuzzy, and ease the pain of the tougher critiques. But I do think taking tough ones is a learned skill. Getting over yourself is a really hard thing to do (she says in in a very small voice).

Nate Wilson said...

I do prefer the sandwich method: first give me a compliment, then give me a sandwich. After that, I'm too busy eating to get hurt by all the criticism you're hurling at me.

Abby Minard said...

Oh I completely agree- with my critique partners' work, I always try to follow a negative crit with a compliment. I always write in the margins when I like a particular paragraph, or part of the story.

lora96 said...

Oh yes I need the positive!
Last time one of my betas e-mailed me about the WiP I fired back with--did you like ANYTHING? couldn't you have told me the font was pretty or my margins were consistent?

i was only half joking. I do not have rhino hide. I am a big thumb sucking whiner, in fact. I need some praise. big time.

Today i made out my notes on each child for parent teacher conferences. I lead with Observations--things like "excellent speller" or "friendly attitude" and make sure i have at least 5 for each kid followed by two concerns. Believe me, some kids I have had to put things like, "always pushes chair in" or my favorite--"observant" which means "pays attention to what everyone else is doing" :)

Jan Markley said...

Great post! We all have to remember to take the time to share some kind words with others.

Cynthia Reese said...

EEEK! Tawna, this made MY week! Thank you, thank you, thank you!


Harley May, wait, so you're saying you'll cry if I hit you in the chest?

LS Murphy, no kidding, even just a tiny compliment is enough to keep me going.

Tom, isn't it great when your critique partner knows exactly what sort of feedback will make you happy? Cynthia knows those LOLs are a lot more meaningful to me than a compliment on my scene setting or whatever.

Linda G, I seem to recall your manuscript was pretty much nonstop LOLs for me!

Matthew, indeed, that's the thing about critiques...they're just one person's opinion, and any writer can take it or leave it.

Valeriebrbr, LOL, thanks! I kinda forgot that mention was up on Michelle's site, since it's been there since March. Maybe I'll go read it again to make myself smile :)

Beth, I wander around unshowered and groaning every day!

Christi, being ignored or overlooked drives me bonkers, too. We can be crazy together.

LynnRush, thanks! I don't even need to eat for a week after a nice compliment.

Danica, indeed, even if a manuscript has oodles of problems, there's always SOMETHING nice you can say.

Brooklyn, you're right, it's so much easier to get started fixing problems when you're motivated by the good stuff someone said.

Patty, LOL, great point about the user manuals. I've written a lot of them, and they probably all suck!

KD Easley, let me know if you need to borrow that shovel!

Geoffrey, funny, people occasionally assume my brother and I are married!

Candyland, thanks, now I'm craving a sandwich.

Matthew, LOL, sometimes it's fun to leave CPs hanging with good chapter hooks!

Demery, it IS great when you have the sort of CP relationship that allows you to say what needs to be said without hurting someone's feelings.

Sierra, I'm supposed to get over myself? Dammit.

Nate, LOL, how does ham and swiss sound?

Abby, I recently judged a contest, and even the entries that were clearly beyond hope got plenty of compliments to balance out the bad stuff.

lora96, those teacher comments are priceless! I especially like "observant."

Jan, exactly! It takes so little time, and it's worth the effort.

Cynthia, ((hugs!))

Thanks for reading, guys!

Janelle Alexander said...

Yes! I love that!! I love happy faces or LOLs!

They make my day!

PS Is it weird that I looked down to see what shirt I'm wearing??? ;o)

Claire Dawn said...

This is why we hired you!

That's the best compliment I think a boss can give!

Génette Wood said...

Funny, my public professor advises against the sandwich method. She's a softie, though. She wants us to use the "plus/delta" critiquing method: what worked, and what "can be changed for the better." She believes in sugar-coating.

I personally prefer the sandwich method--I think that negative comments light more of a fire under me as long as they don't break me.