Not long ago I wrote about Destructive Criticism vs. Healthy Critique when working with writers. The post generated a variety of responses as the conversation continued in the comments.
Shepherdsgrace, for example, had a terrific experience in a writing workshop that included input from the professor and classmates. She explained:
when I was in college I had the audacity, I was a chemistry major through and through, to take a creative writing class…and although an instructor was a fellow student and they all “lived” writing, reading…and were steeped in all things literature…they were very welcoming and friendly to me…I think it was because I was from “outside” their hallowed building, just a curious interloper…they were helpful and gentle at the same time…a little healthy criticism that isn’t couched in petty meanness and caustic barbs will go very far with me…that was one of the funnest classes I ever took…ever…for curious minds, it was a short fiction writing course.
Joyce’s writing workshop experience, however, was quite different from that of shepherdsgrace:
Several years ago I took a university course in creative writing. How I wish that the professor had understood the difference between [Destructive Criticism] and [Healthy Critique]. Not only was he merciless in his comments—written, of course, in red ink on our papers—but he encouraged the class to “critique” each other’s work in the same vein. One student obviously enjoyed this activity and was permitted by the instructor to savage his classmates’ efforts. As a result, many students dropped the class. I continued to the end, but didn’t write another thing for over a year until I had gotten over the experience and realized that the opinions of mean-spirited people really shouldn’t count. That professor has been invited to be the keynote speaker at the awards ceremony for a poetry competition I entered recently. I don’t think I will attend.
LL Barkat described her positive approach when working with writers and other creative types (emphasis mine):
Okay, honestly I don’t believe in critique. I believe in saying what works. Again and again and again. This gets tricky if I’m editing a piece, but even then I want to communicate the idea… hey, if I pulled something out it was only to make sure the good stuff shined the way I knew it could if it was left to itself.
Finally, I’d like to highlight what Gretchen wrote after exploring this topic with others. I’m so grateful she took time to share her findings (I’ve taken the liberty of emphasizing some statements):
I have discussed your post over the last several weeks with colleagues, co-workers, family, and friends. Many points for discussion—including the definition of criticism vs. critique, sensitivity of an aspect of our lives to the perception of others, and the value of what we hold to be dear.There has been varying degrees of agreement and disagreement with the interpretation of criticism as outlined in your reference of Scribes Alley but all generally agreed that it is how one conveys the tone and character of that analysis which is important and what profoundly affects that memorable experience.I think that it can be argued in evaluating the merit of a piece or performance, one should not omit the deficits as it can lead to continued weakness with lack of correction concluding with underperformance or the loss of potential of what could be. In an effort to be “kind” it is really doing no favors.What is true is that no one person wants the “mean girls” to come “knock’n” on your doors of creativity or the things we hold dear.As for the comment that was essentially tasteless ridicule (and lacking in substantial value), I say kick it to the curb and leave it there as I suspect you already have.
Yes, Gretchen, I have indeed kicked to the curb that comment about my poetry—and I appreciate the time you took to explore this topic thoroughly.
All of the comments gave me much to consider, especially as I evaluate the papers of enthusiastic students who are emerging or developing writers. It’s tempting to focus on the mistakes—on what needs to be fixed—and ignore what’s working. I want to applaud what students are doing well so that they can recognize the places where they expressed themselves effectively; yet, I also want to mark errors in hopes of training students to develop good writing habits early on in the same way a piano teacher might correct posture or hand positions.
As Gretchen said, if I omit deficits, students may take much longer to reach their potential. That said, I have been curious to attempt an all-positive approach; or, as LL Barkat described it, “saying what works. Again and again and again.”
Back in 2006 I read an article in The New York Times called “What Shamu Taught Me About Marriage,” by Amy Sutherland. Tired of nagging her husband to change minor habits such as habitually misplacing his keys or leaving used tissues in his wake, Sutherland switched to positive reinforcement. The idea came to her while researching exotic animal trainers and how they could get “hyenas to pirouette on command, cougars to offer their paws for a nail clipping, and baboons to skateboard.” Sutherland wrote:
The central lesson I learned from exotic animal trainers is that I should reward behavior I like and ignore behavior I don’t. After all, you don’t get a sea lion to balance a ball on the end of its nose by nagging. The same goes for the American husband.
She began to thank her husband when he placed just one dirty shirt in the hamper. Meanwhile, she would step over soiled clothes that remained on the floor without saying a word about it—thus rewarding desired behavior and ignoring the rest. As he basked in her gratitude, the piles of soiled clothes shrank. Success came from pointing out what worked and ignoring what didn’t.
Sutherland did, by the way, confess her techniques to her husband. He was not only amused; he learned how they worked and tried them out on her, as well.
Another place I’ve seen the rewards-only technique is online with “TAGteach,” where clickers (yes, the same clickers used by dolphin and dog trainers) are used for training people to learn new skills. In the following video, kids learn basic high jump techniques:
The TAGteach blog explains a few key points:
Note the self assessment and absence of frustration when they miss the tag point. This video shows rapid learning of a complex skill without ever pointing out mistakes. It also provides a good example of backchaining… starting with the last part of the skill and gradually adding pieces to move toward the completed skill.
The positive is reinforced with a reward—a “Click”—while the undesirable is ignored. Here’s another example in which a young boy learns to tie shoes from a teacher who uses only positive reinforcement (and a clicker…and apparently a few beans).
What do you think?
Could this work with writers, focusing on one skill at a time and rewarding them with the equivalent of a “click” when I spot it effectively woven into their assignment? Perhaps writing a simple “Yes!” next to the skill performed well (attempting simile or alliteration, for example), while ignoring all other problems?
It must require tremendous restraint. But what a great atmosphere the positive approach could create. As people discover what works, they can duplicate results, perfect that skill and move to the next level.
It builds confidence that’s based on substance. Positive reinforcement recently worked with me. I wish I could say it was in the area of professional development, but the reality is that it’s a bit more vain. This week I wore a new (well, new-to-me) striped blouse with a vest and nice-fitting jeans. I’m never confident putting together outfits, and my friends were seeing this combination on me for the first time. I worried a little. Did it work? Or did I look like a Goodwill goofball? Two people went out of their way to tell me, “You look cute!”
Guess what I’m wearing today?
Please leave a comment if you’ve applied an all-positive technique to a unique area (such as writing or skill-building with humans), rewarding the good behavior and ignoring the bad—I’m curious to hear real-life stories and results.
Flickr photo “Writing” by Jonathan Kim. Available for non-commercial use under a Creative Commons license.
Flickr photo “little boy thumbs up” by Michele Truex. Available for non-commercial use under a Creative Commons license.
L.L. Barkat says
So glad to hear she told her husband what she was doing! (Otherwise it felt a little odd : )
I love how you put this together. Intriguing.
I’m thinking that direct teaching of a correct skill is the substitution for correction. That’s a very subtle difference, and maybe it works better for something like writing than sports. But still, I think about when I was learning to do higher level things in skating, like jumps. The teacher kept emphasizing correct technique, but that didn’t mean that what I did “wrong” was pointed out.
Not sure if that makes sense.
L.L.: I agree with you about the Shamu wife. That’s why I included the detail that she confessed to her husband. Otherwise, her approach could seem like manipulation. The TAGteach clicker seemed like it was explained beforehand, so the kids knew to listen for the click as a kind of “yes.”
I was thinking about trying this positive-only approach with the next paper my students turn in. emphasizing correct technique. I think you make total sense: teach and emphasize correct skill instead of correcting mistakes.
When I’m just starting out with something, I do best with encouragement. Later, when I’ve got confidence and a decent foundation, I want to improve as rapidly as possible and don’t mind seeing my mistakes. I’ll progress much faster if I can not only reinforce what works but simultaneously eliminate what doesn’t.
I agree…teaching the correct skill is the key…and I think repetition is a good thing as well… the doing of the thing…correctly and repeatedly works wonders…
how many labs did we have to redo to learn proper technique ..when you see your mistake in a petri dish there is no mistaking that you “goofed” and to learn from your mistakes is a very good thing…
my writing teacher did tell me I was way to idealistic…but I knew it was true…hah,hah…but then, so wasy Louisa May…imho
Anne – These are such great questions, not just for writers, but for any of us who are supervising or managing, or just trying to get the most out of our team. It does seem like positive reinforcement can be a wonderful mechanism for teaching, but I do feel like most people need explicit direction on behaviors that are leading them down the wrong path. The delivery is critical, as some of your commenters point out. But criticism, even gentle criticism, can be hard to hear unless one is open to receiving it. Some of us are incredibly stubborn and stiff-necked (to use a biblical reference!). At work, if one does not respond to this direction regarding negative aspects of their performance, it does not turn out well at all. So it behooves the receiver to learn how to improve or change their behavior.
These are great questions for work, leadership and management and you have got me thinking hard enough to write a post on this.
Thanks for offering such a challenging and interesting subject!
Wow. This reminds me of my behavioral psych class.
Ring the bell and Pavlov’s dog starts salivating, right? I’ll have to write a follow-up post about commenting on napkin use with my son. I told him up front while we were at Steak N Shake that I’d love to see him start using the napkin instead wiping his hands on his pants. Then I would comment each time he used it, “Great use of the napkin!” with a big smile. If he wiped on his pants, no comment. It worked pretty well, and I wasn’t trying to manipulate; explained what I was looking for and commended him on a job well done when I spotted the action. Well, I guess I’ve gone and written the follow-up in a nutshell right here.
I subscribe to this philosophy and employ it broadly, championing what can be championed and not angsting about the stuff that’s lagging behind.
HOWEVER, there are times when a person must be told straight-out what s/he is doing wrong and to not tell them, to not point at it and show them specifically is a disservice.
As my favorite writiing professor once told me, though, seeing I was hesitant in conveying the negative news, “TONE is everything.”
You strung this post together wonderfully!
“TONE is everything.”
I like that professor…and your comment. Thanks for joining the discussion!
n davis rosback, nAncY says
i agree, words and tone are very important in how others receive something.