It’s a lesson I’ve been hearing and trying to apply for years: Don’t underestimate the power of good words. Today I’m not talking about skillful writing (per se), but uplifting words, written or spoken. I hear this advice as a wife, when my husband entreats me to stop nagging him for his shortcomings. “Positive reinforcement,” he says, “Is what will get me to change.”
I heard this advice at graduate school when learning best practices for teaching writing: “If you only criticize students, you will freeze their writing process. You must encourage what they are doing well so they can gain confidence to keep writing.” And, “Wait until later to correct their grammar and punctuation. If they only see red marks on the page, they will be so scared of screwing up, they won’t take any risks.”
The Bible says, “The soothing tongue is a tree of life, but a perverse tongue crushes the spirit” (Prov. 15:4), and, “Gracious words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones (Prov. 16:24).
Putting Wisdom into Practice
I’ve tried to put this advice in practice this semester as a college writing instructor. This doesn’t mean I never comment on what’s bad in an essay, but I give as many compliments, if not more, as criticisms. And I waited until about halfway through the semester to significantly address punctuation or grammar. I’m not sure if it was this approach, or my sequence of assignments, or the natural improvement that comes over time, but by essay four, all my students were writing their best papers yet. I think it has something to do with all of the above, plus the fact that the fourth assignment, modeled on a magazine article submission, was a true story of their choosing written for teens. They seemed to care more about this task, given the topic and the clear audience, and it showed in their writing.
I think older, more experienced writers, can handle criticism without letting it derail them. Same goes for older people in any context, if they are well adjusted adults who have learned to let adversity lead to growth. Still, “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings…” (Isa. 52:7). As one who has just received some good news, I am reminded just how life giving good news can be.
My Own Good News
This weekend I received the edit letter on the second (partial) draft of my memoir. I sent Trish 130 new pages thinking, “These suck,” but I sent them anyway, because I had done what she suggested. As I awaited her letter, I expected to read, “You were right; I see why you didn’t put these things in the book originally; they don’t work, they aren’t well written.” I thought she would confirm my self-diagnosis, and I would be stuck at square one, trying to figure out a book structure that’s been problematic from the beginning.
Guess what? I was wrong. Her letter positively glowed. Here are some of the good words she gave me:
I am so, so proud of you for digging deep.
It was a vivid, powerful reading experience.
I didn’t do much line editing, mostly because I was really caught up in the story.
These are great scenes. There are lots of pages where I don’t note anything because the story was carrying me along. That means you’ve done it right.
Overall, you have raised your writing level so much with these new pages. I know this is taking longer than you thought it would. But you will be glad you took this time and wrestled out these scenes. The end result will be a book that you will be really proud of, and will entertain and bless your readers.
You’re a fun, talented writer to work with.
The Results of Good News
After the second time I read through the six-page letter, I felt light, like a weight had been lifted. A week ago when I sent in my pages, I felt heavy, lost in my writing process, and unsure what I was going to do after she told me to try again. I resisted working on my memoir for the entire week, figuring it would do no good until I knew what she would say.
Now I am re-energized. Last night around bedtime, I even felt compelled to sit down and outline some new scenes that will finish the book. The outline poured out and suddenly clarified the structure of my book. I saw how the new pages would circle back to and unify this new, as yet unwritten, ending. I realized I could not have conceived of this ending until now, because the events have just happened within the last month.
One lesson for me to learn was, again, God’s timing. Though I tried to set a date on this book project from my very first blog post, I couldn’t, because I didn’t know what all needed to be in the book.
The other lesson was good news. How lovely was this good news to me! Would I have seen the vision for completing my memoir without Trish’s good words? God used her words to revitalize my writing, and now I can’t wait to get back to work!
So great, Lindsey! So affirming. That is super-exciting. Thanks for those stories about your students. I tend to be mostly ‘constructive criticism’ and not a lot of praise. I def. have a hard time with that when some kids need so much work! But I def. will try to go big on the positives! Can’t wait to read your memoirs when they are done!
Glad this post was helpful, Kate. One of the best things I learned in graduate school (or had reinforced) was that there is always something good to say about any student’s writing–sometimes we have to look a little harder…but we can find something to praise! I know your students will appreciate it! Thanks for reading!