Aug 1, 2022

useful praise

One of many things I did on my sabbatical this past year is write fan letters to people whose work I admire. Sometimes they wrote back, and sometimes they didn’t, but I’m always glad when I’ve done it, regardless. After writing a whole book, I newly appreciate how much specific feedback means to anyone who’s labored to make something and put it out into the world. And I worked hard on the form of the fan letters I wrote in the last year. I resolved only to write if I could say something very, very specific about why the book/article/podcast/whatever was working so well.

So it’s a delight to see this from Mandy Brown:

A regular practice of praising your colleagues builds goodwill and trust, helps to dispel imposter syndrome, and supports a team that can capably reflect on what it does well as well as where it goes wrong. Because being great is more than a matter of improving your weaknesses—it’s also about building on your strengths.

In an essay about how writers should think about revising their work, A. E. Osworth argues for “useful praise”:

“To identify strengths, a writer needs trusted readers: colleagues who understand that praise is only useful if it is specific, intellectually rigorous, and honest. Specificity is the clearest—the praise should point to a word, sentence, page, pattern, something that objectively appears in the text. Useful praise directs a writer’s attention to where the skill was deployed.”

Osworth’s greater point here is that writers should move towards their strengths, not merely away from criticism. This is great advice not only for writers but for all of us. This is not to say that constructive criticism is to be avoided, or that it isn’t also necessary. But if it’s the only kind of feedback you ever get, constructive criticism can have the unintended consequence of making you feel like you’re always coming up short. Useful praise reinforces that you’re learning and growing and gives you direction as to how to keep moving. That’s a very powerful motivator.