Beware the false compliments that are killing your writing

If there was a 10 Commandments of Writing it would be at #5, just ahead of ‘Thou shalt not write thy novel in a Starbucks’. The people around you can help simply by bringing you a refreshing cup of tea, or someone who you can talk to about writing and bounce ideas off, or someone who actively reads and critiques your work.

It’s important to be surrounded by passionate people. It fuels you and makes the whole process of creation easier and more worthwhile.

But… you have to be careful.

Without meaning to, friends can actually damage your work with blind encouragement. They can kill your writing with kindness.

When It’s Bad And They Say It’s Good

I’ve seen it happen before, I’ve had it happen to me before, and I know for a fact that as well as being on the receiving end of well-meaning but blind encouragement I’ve given some out too. No doubt you’re the same. Writing isn’t easy; it’s a fragment of your heart and soul borne onto the page. When a friend comes to you and asks you what you think of their work, you want to be kind. You want them to like what they’ve done and you want them to like you.

No one likes being unkind or giving bad news. So you stretch a false smile over your gritted teeth, nod a lot, and say buttery generalisations: “This is great! I love this. Doesn’t Character X have a great name?” They go away happy, and you go away with that horrible hollow sensation in your head that feels as if your brain parachuted out to escape your lying tongue.

In this scenario: no one wins.

When They Say It’s Good But Don’t Say Why

And sometimes people aren’t lying. Sometimes they genuinely don’t know any better but want their opinion to be voiced. Look on almost any writing forum or comments section on a writing blog and you’ll find people slapping each other on the back over fragments of their WIP, enjoying the saccharine empty phrases such as “I look forward to reading this!!!” and “Wow that’s brilliant!” in a meaningless orgy of mutual false praise and an overuse to exclamation points.

Such fawning words might make you feel good, but what good are they doing your writing? Other than perhaps spurring you on to write more, how are they making you a better storyteller?

False Criticism Will Send You Way Off Course

The end result of both is that you’re not getting criticism. Worse, you can’t detect the things people truly like from the things they’re just saying they like. Everything is devalued into a mush of clichéd hyperbole and hollow sycophancy.

You’re unable to tell the good from the bad – what needs work from what strengths you should play to. Having a friend who can’t/won’t critique you is like putting a magnet next to the compass. It’ll lead you wildly, dangerously, off course. Before you know it, you’ll have fallen into bad habits just because people weren’t honest with you.

The Importance Of Criticism Over Encouragement

There’s a difference between encouragement and criticism.

Encouragement is a statement:

  • “I really liked the protagonist!”
  • “You’re a great writer.”

Criticism is a statement with (and this is very important) reasoning behind it:

  • “I really liked the protagonist because I thought they had a well-defined voice.
  • “You’re a great writer because you have a real knack for characterization.

A good friend – one who really has your best interests as a writer at heart – will use criticism. Occasionally they’ll say things you don’t want to hear, but that’s a good thing. It’s not because they hate your work (or you), but because they like your work (and you) and think that an audience would like it even more if some changes were made for certain reasons.

They’ll tell you what they liked and why, and what they didn’t like and why, and from that you can come to your own conclusions about how to edit or continue writing.

This is how you improve.

Look For Honest Criticism

People who just tell you that they love your work, while a nice ego-boost, are completely useless to you as a writer. Well, unless they’re bringing you lots of cups of tea. Probably best to keep them around then.

So keep your friends close, and your writing friends even closer. And don’t believe everything you hear. Especially if it has three exclamation points after it.



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