The praise sandwich is baloney

You might know this under a different term so let me explain what I mean by praise sandwich. It’s when you have criticism to give a writer and you think it’s going to be pretty bad so you begin with something nice and you end with something encouraging.

The idea is that the little writer believes the praise and is thereby cushioned enough to accept your true criticism. That the poor little writer will learn from you, that you can give them the benefit of your knowledge and do so in such a way that they don’t realise how harsh you’ve really had to be.

Give me strength.

You’re already detecting a certain antagonism from me about this idea so let me nip in quickly with this: no, it hasn’t just happened to me. It’s certainly happened over the years and I think I’ve even been taught to use it too. But I read a piece recently by someone who was advocating it and perhaps because it was couched in a lot of talk about being professional, it narked me.

Because if you actually are a pro, you can smell the praise sandwich from the first bite.

Don’t waste my time with it, don’t insult me with it. If you think you need to give me a praise sandwich, we shouldn’t be working together. We should not be in the same writing group. Good writing groups are so hard to find that I never have. I’ve long since given up trying, though I did have a go with one a few months ago. It wasn’t the right group for me: there was some professional work going on there but not much and at most the writers fed each other praise on toast.

I did too: I ended up talking encouragingly to a writer who will never get her book published. I could tell her why, I had told her why, she just wasn’t ever going to listen. For a simple reason too: she’s not a pro. She’s a reader, not a writer. Usually criticism is just one’s opinion but in this case it was as practical and pragmatic and certain as if she’d told me she was entering a poetry contest and the piece she was submitting was 170,000-word doctoral thesis about trout.

Tell me what good I did her. Tell me what good the praise sandwich I got back was. This was a group that prided itself on being so tough that it could scald the skin off your arms but to me it was kindergarten. It was nap time at kindergarten.

Please, I’m asking you, give me some credit for being a pro and do not use the praise sandwich on me.

Remember this when criticising work

I am a bit full of the residential writing course I just taught but let me tell you something I learnt from it. I wanted to explain to people who have never written creatively, just what criticism and feedback was really for.

I’ve been a professional critic and I have been criticised myriad times but when you stop to explain something to someone, I think you get a better understanding of it. Which, ironically, is one of the things I was trying to say criticism is for.

But I surprised myself with what I now call reason number one. Criticism is there to encourage. That does sound like a Hallmark Card but I mean it because nobody ever did anything any good through stopping and giving up.

Next, there are really two pieces of work. If you’re writing a story, there is the one in your head and then there is one on paper. Criticism deals only and solely with the one on paper – but its aim is to get you bringing the one in your head more.

And I found a new writing exercise. I divided the group into pairs and got each person to read the other’s story and then tell them what it was about. That’s the reader and critic telling the writer what the writer’s own story is about. I need to run this a few more times to know whether it works but it feels right: the writer gets to hear whether he or she has conveyed what they were after. And, bonus, your critic really concentrates when their job starts with telling you your own story.

How to criticise someone’s work

I had a thing the other day where someone was so gleeful about how much she disliked my work that I imagined her rolling up her sleeves to dive in, I imagined she was going to take the skin off my arms – and I knew the piece would be improved for it. I was ready to bleed to make that piece better.

And unfortunately that didn’t happen. Most of her comments were clever and useful, but none were worth the glee. Most peculiar. Very disappointing. Quite fascinating.

I was happy with the glee if it got me the blood but there are ways to avoid both and Brain Pickings has featured one good ‘un. According to the Brain Pickings site, philosopher Daniel Dennett, says:

You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.
You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

How to Criticize with Kindness: Philosopher Daniel Dennett on the Four Steps to Arguing Intelligently – Maria Popova, Brain Pickings (28 March 2014)

Writers: decode the criticism you get

The Blank Screen (UK edition, US edition) has a particularly popular section on How to Get Rejected. In part because it explains why a ridiculous proportion of criticisms your writing work gets is bollocks.

But you have to read it all, you have to take it all, you have to smile all the time.

Nonetheless, things are moving on in the criticism world. Previously we used to get what were called praise sandwiches. Your critic starts with something great to say about your work and ends with something really fantastically constructive. But you and they know the only thing that is true is the abuse in between the two.

Now the Harvard Business Review is advising critics to cut this crap out entirely:

Never, ever, ever feed someone a “sandwich.” Don’t bookend your critique with compliments. It sounds insincere and risks diluting your message. Instead, separate your negative commentary from your praise, and don’t hedge.

Everything You Need to Know About Giving Negative Feedback – Sarah Green, Harvard Business Review (30 June 2014)

O-kay. You’re thinking that you’re going to miss the praise sandwich now, aren’t you?

Read the full Harvard Business Review piece. Put yourself in the shoes of a critic, see what they’re being advised to do, and you’ll be armed enough to nod politely before you DESTROY THEM AND ALL THEIR FAMILIES.

Must do better

If you had to criticise someone, you’d probably use what’s called the criticism sandwich. “That was an excellent idea, admittedly the execution was unbelievably amateur and I wish we’d hired someone else, anybody else, but you know, you typed it up beautifully.” That kind of thing. But when you’re criticising yourself, you don’t look for any bread to wrap it up in.

Sometimes you refuse to eat the baloney in the middle and sometimes you wish you’d started this with a more robust analogy that could stand any chance of lasting the distance.

So I could’ve chosen my analogy better but let me take that criticism and change it to how I’d address anyone else being as slack with their writing. “We got the point you were making, you made it clear and obvious, but you should really have got out of Dodge at the end of the first paragraph.”

Incidentally, usually I’d be saying to myself that: “I bollocksed-up that, didn’t I?”

You can see the difference, can’t you? It’s not that one is positive and one is negative, it’s that one is third- and one is first-person. From the Wall Street Journal:

When people think of themselves as another person, “it allows them to give themselves objective, helpful feedback,” says Ethan Kross, associate professor of psychology and director of the Self-Control and Emotion Laboratory at the University of Michigan.

‘Self Talk’: When Talking to Yourself, the Way You Do It Makes a Difference – Wall Street Journal (5 May 2014)

That’s from a piece that is laden with sports analogies that I can barely understand but it’s a persuasive point. And I thought it was persuasive or I wouldn’t be here telling you about the full feature, but telling you made a difference. I look at this and in particular I look at the way I usually criticise myself. I wanted to find an example of how I usually am compared to how this lot say I should be and that searching, that thinking, fixed it in my head more. It’s like you’ve told me to lighten up and I’m listening to you. So thanks.

Give yourself a Paddington stare

The New York Times has a piece about a restaurant owner who turned his business around chiefly by giving himself a hard look in the mirror. It's a nice story and they use it to illustrate what they believe is a key business point which can apply to all of us:

In interviews we did with high achievers for a book, we expected to hear that talent, persistence, dedication and luck played crucial roles in their success. Surprisingly, however, self-awareness played an equally strong role.

I've read as many pieces about aiming high as you have so it's nice to have one that says there's value in stopping to look at yourself as you really are right now.

Read the whole piece including what happened with that restaurant and while you're at it, do please give Lifehacker a nod for spotting it.

That’s rubbish: positive vs negative thinking

I'm British and a journalist, cynicism comes to me a lot more readily than happy happy joy joy thinking. But the kicker for me is that it's quicker to think positively.

You know this already: when things are bad, you spend an awful lot of time brooding. That's too feeble a word: worrying, fretting, chewing, pondering, hating. When things are good, you get on to the next job.

I have also realised that it's true: I shouldn't make decisions and I definitely shouldn't act on them when I'm depressed. I still struggle with the concept of telling myself everything is wonderful all the time but I like the idea of head-down getting-on-with-it-all regardless.

Which is what I take away from this piece on The Simple Dollar about negative thinking:

You have to recognize when you’re telling yourself to make poor choices. For me, the best way to counteract this is to have a checklist of the things you’re working on and review it several times a day.

Best word of the day: Schumpeterianism. And how it can help you be productive

It apparently means “creative destruction”. I’d not heard the word before and I still can’t pronounce it with confidence, I also have a bit of doubt that I can spell it. So think of this paragraph as my making a run up to leaping straight in to it and seeing if I can write the word Schumpeterianism.

I need tea. Don’t ask me to do that again.

I’d like you to nip straight to this Lifehacker article rather than listen to me but so you know what you’re getting, it’s really a piece about how to take criticism and use it. How to take criticism without it hurting. For some reason this week I’ve been in several conversations where something similar has come up: my The Blank Screen book has a whole chapter called How to Get Rejected and it’s helped people. A reader tweeted at me that this specific chapter had ignited him. Oh, that felt good.

But hang on, you can read The Blank Screen any time. (If you’re in the States, it’s waiting for you here instead.) Have you already seen this article about – deep breath and no, I hadn’t thought of copy-and-paste until you just said it – Schumpeterianism?

If I got that word wrong the first time, I’ve now just copied-and-pasted the error. So much for your great idea, thanks a bunch. I blame you.

The you who I hope is now nipping off to read the original piece here on Lifehacker: