Praise Does Not Make a Writer Better

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Over the years I’ve taken many writing and English classes. I enjoyed most and did learn some stuff. But only one has ever had a major impact on me and drastically improved my writing. It was a creative writing workshop I took once I returned to school. For the first half of the semester I dreaded it. Once I befriended a classmate we commiserated regularly about how much of a hard ass the instructor was.  The first piece I handed in, he gave back to me refusing to grade it until it was properly proofread and edited. He once told her to completely scrap a piece she shared in class. Essentially he had high standards and was brutally honest when we fell short. It took a while to sink in but we eventually realized he wasn’t tough on us for the hell of it or because we were bad writers. Actually, quite the opposite was more likely.

He was hard on us because he knew we could do better. I eventually came to appreciate it and realized that it was exactly what I needed. Throughout school I always had basic grammar issues and struggled proofreading and editing my work. It was often filled with typos, missing words, and grammatical errors. I don’t remember a time I didn’t get something back filled with red marks. However, my grades were usually pretty good, teachers praised my writing and encouraged me. My first college writing class was a reality check, it was the first time those minor errors had a major affect on my grade. However, I was able to hand in revised papers for a better grade. Unfortunately, my proofreading skills did not improve, instead I relied on the professor to point out the issues in my writing. Despite many of the problems being basic grammar issues I didn’t understand, ie run-on and fragment sentences, she also encouraged me and complimented my writing skills.

The instructor for the workshop, was the first person that ever pushed me to improve. All the praise I had received over the years made me a lazy writer. I had a false sense of confidence and couldn’t see where or how to improve. He did not sugar coat things, he cared more about the writing than hurting my feelings. The last assignment of the semester was a one act play. That’s the one area of writing I never had any interest in so my I didn’t put much effort into it. I don’t remember the exactly what I said but it was some excuse for it not being better. He said, “No, it’s because you gave up.” It was the absolute truth and was better than any amount of praise I could ever get.

Have you ever received feedback that hurt your feelings but helped your writing?  I’d love to hear from other writers about who or what helped you improve your writing. Tell me about the teacher, mentor, etc. that helped you along the way in the comments below.