Praise on toast

I had a bit of a rant about the idea of the praise sandwich this week on The Blank Screen news site. I’ve been thinking about it a lot since then and also I’ve been discussing it quite a bit. Consequently, I want to rant a bit more. Do you mind?

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 the same: I ended up talking encouragingly to a writer who will never get her book published. I could tell her why, I did tell her why, she just didn’t and never will listen to anyone. Hard to know why she was there, really. But then she’s not a pro. She’s a reader, not a writer. Usually criticism is just one’s opinion but in this case my points about her book were 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 a 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.

I got some useful stuff out of them. A couple of things I will change in my work. I remember there was one I actually changed right there and then, I made the fix on the copy on my iPad. But the useful wasn’t all that very useful and I had time to make that change because as good a criticism as it was, I got it instantly, accepted it instantly, agreed instantly and thanked the critic instantly, but still had to listen to another five minutes about it. You take in the first minute, thinking there’s going to be something else. Then around the third minute you tune back in because you think it’s fascinating how someone can find this much to say about a character’s job title.

The thing of it all, of course, is that this particular group does not like my work and I don’t like all of theirs. I don’t actually feel they were doing much work and I did like the material I thought was being done seriously. I was just in the wrong group.

You learn from criticism and being with a new group of people ought to be helpful. Fresh eyes, new ideas, all that. But it so often doesn’t happen. Groups form an ecology and as different as each group of people is, they share the same problems for an outsider. It’s like they’re in a bubble and what you see through the iridescent shifting skin of that bubble is different to what they see inside. Inside, this is a world and it has its rules and especially its hierarchies. Both formed over a long time, both now so ingrained that the members don’t see them as artifice but as reality. Their opinion is not their opinion, it is fact.

Whereas what you see as an outsider is chiefly the clock. Uh-huh. Is that really the time? Already?

I think that inside the bubble you are protected and you have your place. I know very many writers who enjoy their writing groups, I know of many groups that I think are run superbly. I’ve a friend who once stopped enthusing about her writing group mid-sentence because she was embarrassed how much it meant to her. It was clearly an important part of her life and I think she felt awkward about that yet I told her the truth: I envied and I still envy her. The support and the friendship, it’s a precious thing for anyone and maybe especially so for writers since we spend so much time alone.

So don’t think I’m against writing groups and do think that this precious envy is why I tried out this particular one that, frankly, I will never name. You can whistle for it, I ain’t squealing.

I just wondered then and was reminded by the piece I read recently about what it’s like just inside the bubble yet not inside the sanctum. I don’t think it can be a happy place. I picture one trying to get further inside, the way we all do in all social groups somehow, and that means accepting the rules, agreeing with them. I remember getting the sense that this group I tried was interviewing me for a position and not seeing at all that I was interviewing them back for whether I wanted to join. I remember thinking that fitting in with them would not mean improving my writing, it would mean learning to write the way they do.

I’m also not squealing about what piece it was that I read. So this is a one-sided argument but then I’m a man with a mouth and two blogs, I’m always one-sided arguing at you.

I just don’t call it being professional.

That was the narking thing. Calling yourself professional because you use the praise sandwich on someone. That tells me you think you have to use this softly-softly approach because the little writer needs help from you. It tells me that you think you’re right and they’re wrong. That you’re professional so you have to give them the six-inch sub and it’s not your fault if they’re so unprofessional that they can’t take it.

Be supportive, don’t be supportive. Criticise, don’t criticise. Praise, don’t praise. It’s completely up to you but don’t take a moral high ground simply by calling yourself professional. Don’t set yourself up as an excoriating critical group and then waste my time with a finger buffet of praise.

Writers need help and we need influence and we need criticism. I can’t point to any group I’ve ever tried that got me what I need but I can point to countless people who have. Some of them I’d call mentors, all of them I’d call friends now, every one of them I’d call professional. One of them phoned me up laughing down the line about how bad a scene I’d written was. He’s now sick of me using that as an example of a favourite moment in my writing but it is. He didn’t open by saying “Well, I think you typed this marvellously…”, he went straight in to the criticism. And he got me laughing about it too.

This wasn’t because I’m rhino-skinned and it was only partly because I am a professional writer, I am a writer by profession. It was more that I knew he and I would fix that scene, I knew that we both wanted the material to be the best it could be. I loved that he just could just laugh at me because I love that he knew he could. He wasn’t precious, I wasn’t precious, this was art but it was also a job and we got on with it.

So, please, I’m asking you, give me some credit for being a pro and do not use the praise sandwich on me. The praise sandwich is baloney.

UPDATE 12:10:
Writer and group-runner Andy Killeen has commented here yet WordPress is blocking a link he refers to. Here’s where he wanted you to go and now I’m off there myself to see whether he agrees with me or not. It’s going to be an interesting piece whichever way he stands.

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