In Praise of Praise

You can learn a lot at a Doctor Who convention.

It’s funny that I’ve been to any number of writing workshops, writing conferences, readings, and Q&As by authors, but when I think about the real gems of advice, the real eye-opening stuff, it’s come through less obvious sources. In this case, it came from a Doctor Who convention.

Last weekend, I went to the epic Gallifrey One in Los Angeles. For those that are sci-fi or Who fans, check out the website and this recap and consider a visit in the future. It’s well worth your weekend.

This year, one of the biggest draws for me was Jane Espenson. Sure, it was great seeing Peter Davison, Janet Fielding, Sarah Sutton and other Who folk, but I’ve been a fan of Espenson’s work since long before the Ninth Doctor and Rose first rocked my world. We’re talking Dinosaurs here, people. And Buffy and Gilmore Girls. Espenson fangirl, right here, so when her name turned up on the list of invited guests, there was much squeeing and cheering in the Chicklit household.

I’m disappointed to say that I didn’t get into Espenson’s small group session (hers was the first to fill and though my friend and I grabbed the first two alternate spots, absolutely no one failed to show up for the session — surprise, surprise) but I did get to attend the interview and Q&A with Espenson and Doris Egan (novelist, producer, and writer on House, Tru Calling, Smallville). While most of the discussion revolved around the upcoming Torchwood: Miracle Day, there was a lot of talk about the writing process and what happens when Brits and Americans come together to write a tv show. It was fascinating.

And now for my little gem of goodness.

In describing what it’s like to work with Torchwood (and former Doctor Who) showrunner Russell T. Davies, Espenson mentioned that every email from Davies has the subject line “Hooray” and begins with “You are marvelous!”

Now, of course this was not news to us, the fans, who KNOW Jane Espenson and Doris Egan are marvelous because we’ve watched what they’ve done and we love it. However, giving notes with such praise is kind of unheard of in the both the tv writer’s room and the fiction writer’s room as well. I certainly can’t remember ever getting a critique that begins with “Hooray! You are marvelous!”

In fact, the whole idea of praise is somewhat eschewed in critiques. In beginning writing classes, we’re told to critique using the sandwich method: start with what you liked, go into what you didn’t like or what needs work, finish with encouragement. It’s not a bad plan, but it’s frequently abandoned halfway through the workshop in favor of just getting to the point.

By the time you get to an MFA setting, you will be scoffed at if you try the sandwich method. That sort of thing is for new writers, writers that need hand-holding and puppies and rainbows. Professional writers must grow thick skin and be able to take the brutal honesty as it’s doled out. And in a way, that’s true. The writing biz is so full of rejection and heartbreak, that it’s best to toughen up. And yet, if the writing biz is full of all the bad stuff, shouldn’t it be up to our peers and writing groups to give us the extra boost of enthusiasm?

What I gleamed from Egan and Espenson’s comments on Davies’ style and praise was that there’s a tendency to underestimate the value of praise. Espenson talked a little about her own style for giving notes and she admitted that she was afraid to overpraise because she worried it would make the writers complacent. However, she said that receiving Davies’ particular brand of praise made her feel less guilty about the script and more eager to do rewrites. “Instead of ‘oh, here’s the scene I screwed up,'” she said, “it’s ‘this is the masterpiece I just need to tune up.'”

What an awesome way to look at a manuscript. A masterpiece in need of a tune-up. I would be much more eager to work on revisions with that kind of feedback.

Admittedly, it’s been a long time since I’ve given that kind of feedback as well. I’ll point out what’s working, but I don’t think I praise my fellow writers nearly enough. And, when I’m involved in regular crit groups, I’m just as guilty of abandoning the sandwich method to get straight to the problems of the manuscript.

I’m going to try to do things differently. Of course, I’m not going to stop making suggestions about how to make manuscripts better, but I am going to try to give more credit to the strengths and give more encouragement to my fellow writers. Starting with you:

HOORAY!!  You are marvelous! Go forth and write.

One thought on “In Praise of Praise

  1. Hooray! This post is marvelous! 🙂

    Seriously, I’m so glad you got that gem of goodness from Jane Espenson (yup, love her), and that you shared it with us. I try SO HARD as a director, when I’m giving feedback to actors or talking with a writer about the script, to give my feedback in the format of, “Here is what I love about what you did, and here is what I think you could do to make this even better.” It generally seems to work well. When I’m tired or stressed or overworked and forget to give my notes that way, I can see a difference in the effect the notes have. Just like in acting, “Yes, and…” is the most effective way of working with a collaborative partner.


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