Praising, Questioning, Wishing: An Approach to Responding to Writing
By: Brian Slusher
Date: May 4, 2009
Summary: Responding to another's writing is always a challenging task. As a member of the E-Team behind NWP's E-Anthology, Brian Slusher discovered an effective response strategy: Praise, Question, and Wish.
Every Wednesday at 5:00 the Writers Society of Mauldin High meets, and I say "Who wants to read first?" Routinely, several hands shoot up. There's Kendra, with her latest science fiction piece; Claire, who is leafing through several poems to find the perfect one to chant; and Matt, whose fictionalized autobiography comes in chapters, each named for a girl or woman he has known.
One voice is heard, reading the chosen work to the end while the group silently listens. Then in perfect Beatnik disharmony, everyone snaps his or her fingers to show appreciation.
When I was younger and more naïve, that would be the juncture where I would say, "Comments?" and look at a circle of staring faces. No hands would shoot skyward; instead, everyone would carry the look of a prisoner about to be shot.
After unpleasant silence, I would become the Writing Gestapo and interrogate various members: "What did you think, Julia?" And Julia, or Nick, or whoever the victim was would just say, "I thought it was cool."
What Do You Say to a Writer?
Now that I am older and (I hope) less naïve, I realize how daunting that question is for any person faced with discussing a piece of writing. What do you say to a writer looking for response to her piece? How do you start the conversation? And if you think the writing is seriously flawed, how do you start the discussion sensitively?
One obvious route is the one my Writers Society kids used to take: vague flattery, variations on "It was cool" with no more explanation, useless for developing better writing.
And I discovered I had my own difficulties to overcome, for I was steeped in a culture of criticism in the worst sense of the word. When I looked at a piece, my first thought was, "What's wrong with this?" My teachers taught me to focus on flaws first, making peer revision into a game of Grammar Gotcha! rather than a dialogue between two equal partners.
So I struggled and refined my method of commenting as I dialogued with my kids, looking for the balance between saying something encouraging while still pushing for revision.
Later as a member of the E-Team on NWP's E-Anthology, I paid close attention to the way experienced teachers conducted their critique online, hoping to find solutions to these challenges. There also, I encountered treacle and nitpicking—neither of which seemed satisfactory for helping writers who have posted their heartfelt work. But I also noticed that the helpful responders often followed a pattern in their critique.
An Effective Strategy of Response: Praise, Question, and Wish
An approach I found that most paralleled what worked for me with both student and adult writers was Praise, Question, and Wish. This pattern of response works in both face-to-face and online discussions, but it is particularly fitting for online work because of the tricky issue of tone.
When responding to a writer in person, the reader can see the facial expressions and the body language of the writer, as well as catch the subtleties of vocal expression in the conversation. Such visual and verbal cues can help the reader correct immediate misunderstandings or clarify remarks that inadvertently cause offense. In an online environment, however, the reader is blind and deaf, with only text to communicate. Without the assistance of other cues, it is easy to misspeak or be misunderstood.
My teachers taught me to focus on flaws first, making peer revision into a game of Grammar Gotcha!
This potentially shuts down constructive dialogue or it puts a chilling effect on responders, because the mind says What if I say something foolish? What if I offend the writer? What is the right way to point out where a piece goes wrong? The simplest solution is to use vague pleasantries and avoid honest specifics.
Praise, Question, and Wish solves these dilemmas of tone by adopting positive language that strengthens the writer's confidence, while empowering him to take control of his piece.
Here's how the strategy works.
Praise: Most writers long for some kind of recognition, so begin your response with praise. What about the piece is memorable? If after a first reading you immediately had to tell another person what caught your attention, what would you say? Be very specific about what you liked by using an example. If you keep an open mind and a sympathetic attitude, there is always something worth praising, and by beginning with a positive example, you increase the likelihood the writer will be receptive to any changes you suggest.
Also, if a piece is very good, don't be stingy! Cite multiple examples of what you like. The key is to be sincere and specific. While "You are the greatest writer ever!" is initially pleasing, most writers prefer to hear why their piece works more than a hollow hooray.
Question: Next, ask the writer about anything that confused you or seemed inconsistent while you were reading. Statements can easily seem confrontational; questions allow the writer to consider for herself without feeling directed. For example, saying "I really didn't get why the horse was so important" could be read as an attack, whereas "The horse seems important. Can you tell me more about why it was so important?" gives the writer a space to make a judgment without feeling judged.
Sometimes what is in the writer's head doesn't make it to the page, yet the writer sincerely believes she has communicated clearly. A constructive question from you can point out such blind spots. Asking such questions does not challenge the writer's skills, yet still says something needs a second look. As long as you ask sincere questions, you will be helpful to the writer.
Most writers prefer to hear why their piece works more than a hollow hooray.
Wish. Even experienced writers sometimes miss an opportunity to make their piece the best it can be. As a reader, you may see potential that is invisible to the writer, so you naturally want to share your insight. Since many writers are sensitive about receiving advice, it is a good idea to avoid sounding like you are directing their piece. The word wish has a positive connotation, so starting your advice with I wish avoids the tone of a command. For example, "I wish you would tell more about the horse."
Along with wish, another helpful word is consider. Saying "Consider changing the piece from present to past tense" communicates the writer is in control and that the reader is not some expert ordering mandatory changes.
A Real Example of Praise, Question, and Wish
These suggestions may seem like quibbling semantics, but they have an effect. Let's look at an example of Praise, Question, and Wish in action.
Patricia Gillikin of the Four Corners Writing Project posted a wonderful memoir to the E-Anthology about getting lost while out hiking, originally titled "What I Learned from the Back Country." It wasn't hard for me to start with specific Praise:
I really liked when you talked about "balance between basic self-knowledge and self-care, versus being fearful and risk-averse." That is always a tough boundary to tread, and both kids and adults could learn much from your story about dealing in that exhilarating gray area.
One passage in her story suggested the events described might be fictitious, which distracted me. I thought she should at least look at the impact that passage made on the reader. This gave me a chance to Question:
I do wonder where the True/False comes in—surely you didn't make this up?
Finally, I ended by Wishing for some revision:
My only wish might be to cut the first two paragraphs so you get into the action immediately. Your self-description is nicely done, but it doesn't really contribute to the drama. If you had been dressed inappropriately that added to the threat—like wearing flip-flops or missing a hat—I would keep those elements, but otherwise consider getting into the thick of it quick.
Patricia responded to my comments, answering my Question directly in her reply:
The True/False was just the prompt—and this is a true story—I don't think I was even trying to fool anyone when I wrote it.
Thanks for your affirmation of my writing of the "exhilarating gray area"—I'm happy to know my philosophizing doesn't break the flow of the events.
Thanks too for your recommendation that I cut the personal description—I'll have to do something about that. However, how can I just start with the third?—the first paragraph sets the stage and tells where I am.
At this point, we had established a positive dialogue of mutual respect. I had communicated that I enjoyed her work, and she responded with gratitude and a further invitation to collaborate. Patricia worked through three drafts of the piece, each time inviting me by email to give my feedback. I felt comfortable enough to go into greater detail in her next draft:
Consider getting rid of the Marshall State reference—sounds too specific and like a commercial message—and keep the lovely images of cool rocks and dragonflies.
I would never have gotten so picky with Patricia's draft without the foundation of Praise, Question, and Wish, and I also continued to include specific, sincere praise. Her replies to my suggestions continued to be appreciative, but she also justified some choices I questioned.
This demonstrates the deeper benefit of Praise, Question, and Wish—its power to invite open and frank dialogue. Whatever my comments did for her, I know that Patricia made me mindful of my own predilections and biases about writing. I don't think I directed her piece so much as supported her process by saying what I liked, what confused me, and what I most wanted as a reader of her work. Which is why I was so pleased to read her reply:
*Thank you* for your Huzzah's, your encouragement, your analysis! It helps me lots.
With the rising use of Google Docs and other collaborative writing programs, the need for a socially positive online protocol for discussing posted work increases. Whatever that method, it needs to focus the reader on the expressive power of the piece rather than comma splices and spelling errors.
Every thoughtful person who has ever been asked to respond to a writer's work has probably experienced the anxiety and difficulties I have described. I say if you feel a little wary about responding, that's a good sign. Care should be taken when we read something as personal as writing, but there is no reason responding can't be helpful and humane for both the writer and the responder.
Now my Writers Society kids use Praise, Question, and Wish every week with both confidence and good conscience because they see how it stresses the positive, gives the writer useful options, and doesn't stress out the writer or responder.
While it is a formula, it doesn't have to become robotic: there is no need to ask questions or wish for any changes if neither is necessary. The only necessity is to start positive and be open to the writer's work. Once Praise, Question, and Wish becomes ingrained, it frees the reader to stop worrying about how to approach discussing writing and gets her nearer to the beating heart of a piece.
Now that is cool.