The Negative Effects of Praise

Everyone likes being told that something they’ve done was good. Sure, some people do have difficulty accepting compliments, but most people appreciate that others feel our efforts are praise-worthy. And that includes writers. It’s wonderful to hear from readers who’ve enjoyed my work. Even after nearly a decade and a half, I never get tired of hearing it.

Of course, there are good ways to praise, and not-so-good ways. Here’s a great article over on Parenting Science, in case you’re interested in reading up on it. One of the points made by the author is especially relevant to me: “Encourage kids to focus on mastering skills—not on comparing themselves to others.” I think one of the biggest disservices done to school kids is giving praise for being “best in class,” so to speak, rather than actually being good. Throughout elementary school, my English teachers praised my writing. This continued through high school, so by the time I graduated, I thought I was some sort of literary genius, when in fact I was anything but. I might have been better than the majority of my peers, but that’s not the same as being good.

Okay… and…?

Because of this, I entered my college writing classes with a bit of an ego. And to be fair, my work was still better than many of those in my classes, but no longer was I receiving the glowing commentary from teachers. Instead, they pointed out the flaws. And before long, I realized that I still had a lot to learn. I realized I wasn’t anything special.

The truth was that I’d entered my college writing program without any understanding beyond my own instincts of what elements were necessary for a good story, since that wasn’t something I was taught in high school. Nor, it turns out, was there much of that in my college English classes. It wasn’t until I took a screenwriting class through the film department in my senior year that I learned these things. To say my opinion of the English program lowered then is an understatement.

Or actually teach me something of value.

In later years, I put together a series of classes (eight of them, in total, each focusing on a different aspect of fiction writing) for an adult education program in Sacramento. I had a number of students over the years tell me that they learned more in my classes than in all of college, which of course is why I put the classes together in the first place – to contain what I should have been taught all those years ago, rather than having to learn it on my own.

Praise is a double-edged sword. One edge was the praise that gave me confidence to continue writing and to consider doing it “for real” as an adult. The other edge, though, was praise that gave me false expectations of how that would go.

Everyone and their cousin is writing a book, today (and publishing e-books to sell for pennies). Likely as not, a huge number of them were once kids who were told they were good writers by well-intentioned primary school teachers, but who never actually learned to become good writers. Why should they? After all, they always got an “A” on their stories. That may be the most negative effect of praise: the current flood of mediocre novels.

Posted by vmwales in Writing Process, 0 comments