| Don’t Write Alone
Notes From Class Revise Toward Praise, Not Away From Criticism
Revising toward praise gives a writer a direction to go, something to build to instead of something to run from.
“You can’t do a negative” is one of the best craft techniques I’ve ever been taught. No one said this to me while I was getting my MFA in fiction. No one said it to me while I was revising my first novel, We Are Watching Eliza Bright . No one in the world of writing said it to me at all.
This piece of advice came to me in high school while I was studying for the summer at Mason Gross, the acting conservatory at Rutgers. I was a weird, pimply kid in a bucket hat and I wanted desperately to be good at something, specifically the something of acting. Until that point, I had been able to sometimes tap into the magic of playing pretend for an audience, and sometimes I couldn’t. The idea, of course, was to train in such a way that a performer can access that space all the time, on demand. In the context of theater, that’s what craft is. How do you replicate human emotion, speech, and movement consistently, eight shows a week, for however long you’re lucky enough to be employed?
Turns out, the how is in the name. Acting. Performing actions. It’s all about choosing your verbs. You can’t be less frenetic or not slick —what does that look like? What does that mean? Instead, one chooses to amble or bungle or any other delicious verb to gerund one’s way through a scene. And to write is also, of course, an action. It is a verb. It is a doing. Which means the same thing applies—one cannot write a “less” or a “not,” because one cannot do a “don’t.” It literally means “to not do.” So. What to do instead?
In the same way an actor might choose a specific verb to do onstage, a writer can look toward the strengths of a piece and, rather than trying to act upon a negative (read: to create action based on the traditional workshop critique of what’s not working here? ), choose something to act upon during revision.
Ask for Useful Praise
It isn’t radical to suggest that authors themselves are not always the best judges of their own strengths. In the case of the writer (usually a member of a marginalized community) socialized to disparage their work, they may find no strengths, which is a condition I have not yet seen in a piece turned in for a workshop. In the case of a writer socialized to be extremely confident in their abilities, they may attribute great strength to a skill that is still underdeveloped or does not work as a focus for revision, or they may simply be unable to narrow such a list down to something manageable to act upon.
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.
Intellectual rigor refers to going beyond “I liked this”; it names the skill and describes the skill’s effect on the reader. For example, if I were to praise Proust for his use of long sentences, I wouldn’t say, “Good job with those commas, my guy.” Or at least, I wouldn’t only say that (if I’m honest, I would probably begin there). I would make sure to tell him how I thought the long sentences were functioning—that they mirror the experience of spelunking in memory and give the reader the freedom to meander through the story, thus tying reader experience to his explored themes and inextricably linking form to content. A writer needs to know why and how something works in order to deploy the skill elsewhere.
And lastly, the most important: honesty. I remember having a hard time accepting a compliment from my friend Leia. We’d just workshopped a piece of mine, and I told her that I was afraid everyone was just being nice to me, that the piece wasn’t actually good. I’ll never forget her response: “Have you ever lied to me when complimenting my writing? Because if you have, you’ll never believe a compliment when it’s said to you.” I reflected: Turns out, I’d never lied. I’d only ever said something was working when I genuinely believed it to be working. It became easier to accept praise after that. But it’s not only important for the fabric of writerly community and one’s own mental health to never lie about a compliment; if we use praise to guide a revision, the compliments must be earnest and the strengths must be real.
A writer can look toward the strengths of a piece and, rather than trying to act upon a negative, choose something to act upon during revision.
If you’re a workshop leader, try running an entire workshop using Useful Praise only—that’s the workshop I normally run, and even if you don’t run workshop that way all the time, it’s fun to have more than one kind of tool in the tool belt. I recommend giving it a go. If you’re an individual within a more traditional workshop (as in, you are not the instructor and are working within the bounds of a specific workshop format), you might need to ask your peers to focus on praise. If you’re subject to a “cone of silence” during part of workshop, redirect once it’s lifted. Ask about where things are working, and request that any compliments be specific, rigorous, and honest.
List Five Strengths
This step is exactly what it says on the box—find the five craft skills that are working well in the piece. Let’s say an author has a giant list from a whole praise-only workshop. That’s unwieldy for a revision, which means it’s time to call upon the 90-10 Rule (which I learned from Helen Schulman). The 90-10 Rule states that of everything an author hears in workshop (or, really, in any feedback situation), the author will disregard 90 percent of it and act upon just 10 percent.
Does the ratio actually matter? Not really, as long as the end result is manageable and the author isn’t using feedback as a way to write a novel by committee. For me, that’s five skills; for any given author, it might be three or six. All that matters is that the writer can keep all of it in their head.
When you create your list, write it in such a way that you can hold all of it in your head. Distill the praise into action. My personal favorites are:
“When x, then y.” When memory, then long sentence.
Challenge accepted language: “How long can I make this sentence?”
Give these two a try, but allow yourself the freedom to pivot to something else that works better—whether that’s writing the whole compliment out because it gives you a heart-rise when you look at it, or treating it like The Desire Map and choosing one word to represent it. However you choose to make this list, it should resonate with you .
Highlight Goal Areas
Take your list of five strengths and get you five different highlighters or pens or colored pencils to color-code your list. When I do this, I never use red; I want this list to be as visually appealing as possible, and red reminds me too much of the red-pen days of high school.
Then I go paragraph by paragraph and, rather than marking where the strength already exists, I take my list of five things and mark out where I would like to deploy each of the listed strengths. In our Proust example, if Proust stumbled upon a very short sentence in his draft, he’d take note that this isn’t in line with the strength he’s got written down, and he might consider whether it was working the way he wanted it to. He’d return to his list and, perhaps, see “if memory, then long sentence.” And he’d make a decision—is this a meandering down memory lane? If yes, let’s say he decided to color-code it, oh, I don’t know, lemon yellow. He’d then underline or highlight the sentence in yellow.
Do a “Five-by-Five”
This would be a super-tedious way to approach an entire novel at once! Or even a whole short story draft! What I do is take five pages with five strengths and rework small sections of something larger, one tiny piece at a time. The important part isn’t the precise number of pages, of course; it’s that the chunk feels manageable. So if it’s a chapter you’re thinking of, or even one page, rock on! Break it down into something that feels good to you.
A writer won’t need this scaffolding forever. I’d be surprised if anyone needed the highlighter past twenty pages of revision (I don’t), because what begins to happen is that the strengths become expertise, well beyond an average competence or conscious choice. Much like a hammer seeks a nail, a writer practicing their strengths will begin to see where those strengths can be deployed fairly quickly in their piece.
If this whole praise thing isn’t working for you, that’s cool! As with any craft technique, it might not; there are as many ways to be a writer as there are writers. But before you discount its value, see if you’re having one of these struggles and try to work through it first.
“I don’t believe the praise.”
Why don’t you? Is it because it’s a first draft and we’re used to thinking of first drafts as “shitty” (one student of mine just said that quoting Bird by Bird is like quoting the Bible but for writers, so fixed is its place in the craft discourse)? Reframe that a little bit: A first draft isn’t supposed to be anything, really, so how can you judge it as shitty or not? If we think about pottery, a first draft isn’t even our first attempt at throwing a pot on the wheel. A first draft is the clay. It’s still formless and wet and it smells like the river. We shouldn’t judge clay for not coming out of the ground already looking like a pot. The process is what makes it into a pot. We shouldn’t call the clay shitty, and we shouldn’t call our drafts shitty either. You can praise a draft; the praise is still honest. The first draft is exactly what it needs to be: a first draft.
Is it that you’re a person who has not always been entirely honest with your own praise? In that case, it’s time to practice giving useful praise yourself and to rework your relationship with seeing strengths in work, yours and others. If you’re in a workshop with others, perfect! You’ve got a built-in community for this, and plenty of work to read. If not, it is a lovely thing that we live in the age of the internet, where so much writing is published every single day. Practice useful praise of things you’re reading casually; practice useful praise of things you read that aren’t to your taste; practice useful praise of your absolute favorite book or essay or movie of all time. Learning to see strengths and to know when you, yourself, are being earnest in your compliments will (if you are anything like me) enable you to trust other writers when they praise you.
Is it that you don’t trust your readers more generally? Have a group discussion about praise: why you think it’s valuable, why you want it, and what it needs to be (specific, rigorous, and honest) to be useful praise. If you’re still feeling widgy after such a processing discussion, it might be time to reevaluate your creative community.
“I can’t hold all five things in my head at once.”
Remember, you can use less! I’ve done a revision where I focused on only one thing because it was so darn tricky to do! And to be perfectly honest, I chose five-by-five because it’s easy to remember when I hit the panicking stage because I’ve forgotten my own advice and am belittling my work. Which means you could also choose three-by-three (three strengths, three pages; repeat). You could choose one-by-one!
If it doesn’t feel right to use less or break it into smaller chunks, try putting the list where you can see it easily. I have a chalkboard hanging by my dining room table, which is where I write. Sometimes it houses my to-do list for the day; sometimes it has five highly specific, rigorous, and honest compliments about my novel on it, which I look to as I revise.
“I need to act on more than five things at one time.”
I feel like this is especially pertinent if you’re working on something book-length: Five strengths to guide a whole book revision feels flimsy. When it comes to having hundreds of pages, you might need many more craft elements to sing in concert with each other than the initial five.
Think of this, then, like a 3D printer. In one revision, you focus on your first five things. In the next draft, you focus on a different five things. And so on and so forth until your editor or agent tells you to hand it over already.
The first revision is the base layer—you need to get that one down in order to focus on the next one, which then builds on the work you did. The existence of the first revision fundamentally changes what you do in the next one as it provides a foundation and literally changes the position of the printer. After you revise toward five strengths, your book will be different and will require a different revision.
“ My department or institution won’t let me run workshop this way because they think it’s fundamentally unserious.”
I didn’t really understand until recently that running a praise-only workshop might be read as less rigorous than a traditional one, or even threatening to institutions at which focusing on critique is “just how it’s done.” Aside from telling your colleagues that I, a random author, told you that not everything that produces a valuable outcome need entirely dismiss the process, and not every process that produces artistically meritorious work needs to feel grueling, here’s a paper you can share: “A Pedagogy of Play: Reasons to be Playful in Postsecondary Education,” by Mark Leather, Nevin Harper, and Patricia Obee, published in The Journal of Experiential Education last year. Centering praise and process is part of a much larger pedagogical project of learning and teaching through play.
It’s worthwhile, I think, to change our relationship to feeling good while revising, because if we’re doing our jobs as writers, it’s something we spend a long time doing. Making the process feel worse on purpose in the name of an imagined tortured-artist mythos or outdated idea of suffering to attain greatness is both puritanical and punishing. And that ideological system has a funny way of leaching; it never stays put. At its least harmful, it might subconsciously cause a writer to spend less time revising; at its worst, it might convince a writer they have nothing worthwhile to say. But mostly, revising toward praise gives a writer a direction to go, something to build to instead of something to run from.
A. E. Osworth is teaching a 4-Week Online Prose Intensive: The Workshop Workshop for Catapult beginning on June 21. Find more information and register here.