The Downside to Constantly Praising a Talented Writer

Praise is good. Too much praise … bad.

We’ve grown accustomed to hearing the same cliche stories over and over again: character with a talent for X is told repeatedly that they are incapable of creating a career out of talent X. One person comes along who believes in them so strongly that they push them through all their doubts, until they finally achieve success.

The moral of these stories is: don’t ever let anyone tell you that you can’t.

These are feel-good stories. Some of them even happen in real life. Beating the odds is something everyone wants to read about on their Facebook feed, for sure.

But what about when the opposite happens? What about a character with a talent for X is told repeatedly that they are MORE than capable of creating a career out of talent X? What if no one ever says to their face, “You can’t do this?” Do they still end up on top, never having to face any doubt that they are going to succeed? Do they still work hard, climb from the ground up and refuse to quit?

Perhaps, sometimes, they do. You just don’t hear about them, because they did exactly what everyone expected them to do. They had a talent, they had more than enough support to back them up, and they chased after success until they could hold it firmly in their grasp.

There is nothing wrong with a little praise, a little encouragement, a little hope. Everyone needs that; everyone deserves that. But there is a reason many talented people do not achieve the level of success they were capable of: they never learn how to fight for what they want.

Growing up, I was always told that I was a good writer. I was always told that I would make it as a professional writer, because I had a gift, because I was skilled, because it came easily to me. Everyone expected me to major in English or creative writing. Everyone expected me to publish a book at a young age or teach writing straight out of college. Everyone believed in me. Not one person in my life had ever told me to my face that I couldn’t do it.

And do you know what happened? Despite being grateful for the support, despite self-discipline, despite knowing that I was capable of launching a career very early on in my adult life, I got lazy. I let boredom sidetrack me. No one ever taught me how to challenge myself, because they assumed I was already good enough, so I didn’t.

Constantly being told “you can” almost completely ruined my career before it had a chance to take off. And I pay the price, every day, for this.

It wasn’t the kind words, the helpful suggestions, the encouraging feedback that sidelined me. I remember every single person who has helped me along this journey, I remember the words they have spoken and the confidence I gained because of them. There is nothing wrong with constructive kindness. But up until I started actually pursuing a writing career on my own, I never really knew what it felt like to doubt myself because of someone else’s discouraging words. I never learned what writing in the real world was like.

Yes – I assumed that I could survive in this industry off of the skills I had developed simply from writing on my own. I figured that would be enough. After all, no one had ever told me otherwise. Believe me, I listen when people criticize me. I would have absorbed it immediately.

So there I was, an early 20-something, learning for the first time that being a good writer wasn’t enough to build a stable career in freelance writing. Because it isn’t. You have to be an expert in a solid niche, if you want to make good money. You have to know how to negotiate, how to persuade people to pay you to craft quality work from nothing. You have to know how to stand up for yourself, you have to have enough self-respect not to let someone pay you pennies to do their work for them.

You have to be able to shake it off and keep going, when people actually say to your face that the work you’ve done is imperfect, which is apparently unacceptable. (not all clients are like this … avoid them, if you can.) You have to be able to say, “Yes, this is a real job,” when people question you about it. Because they will. There are people out there who will not criticize you when you are young, but will silently judge you when you are an adult. Don’t know why. It just happens.

Do I blame the Snowflake Treatment for my adolescence full of praise? Yes and no. It’s not that I wish people had told me I was a terrible writer. I’m not. Some people just have an inexplainable mastery of painting pictures with a language. That doesn’t make them special: it gives them an advantage. But it also has the potential to make them lazy. I feel prey to that; I admit it. A year into my career as a freelance writer, I still have to shake off self-doubt, take criticism lightly and talk myself into taking risks. This is all still new to me. I never had to go up against anyone saying I wasn’t good enough. Everyone goes through this. I’m just doing it late. Some of you will judge me for that. That’s fine. I can handle it.

All this to say, no matter what other people think of your desire to write … as a hobby, to make a living … take the praise as it comes, but don’t let it trick you into believing you aren’t going to face any challenges. Be grateful for those who are honest with you. Prepare to work hard, whether you have a “gift” for writing or not. Admit your mistakes and your failures. Don’t be embarrassed to say, “I could have done better.” Keep moving forward. There will be doubters, whether they say so in front of you or behind your back. There will be people who sugar-coat the reality of the writing life. (I’m definitely not one of them.)

No matter what, believe that you are capable of earning your success. Be patient. Work for what you want. See where it takes you. You can overcome lifelong discouragement. You can overcome the Snowflake Generation curse. Whatever it is, you can get past it, and write anyway.

Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a freelance writer and a nine-time NaNoWriMo winner with work published in Teen Ink, Success Story, Lifehack and USA TODAY College. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.

2 thoughts on “The Downside to Constantly Praising a Talented Writer

  1. To touch on the opposite of your point, we can’t be just head down, shutting everyone out, and working the grindstone without ever listening to what others are saying. As professionals, we need to be aware the dialogue and trends that are happening around us. What people are going to want in the near future? What skills do we need to be developing right now, so that we are well equipped down the road?

    From my point of view, this is what other people’s comments and the larger conversations taking place are good for: to simply offer ideas, and you can take them and do with them what you will. But everyone, unless you are the best in the world at what you do, needs to stop and listen to gain new perspective now and again.

    1. Excellent counterpoint. :) You’ll get praise and you’ll get criticism. Part of writing professionally is deciding how to use all kinds of feedback constructively. Praise is good for motivation, sometimes; deep criticism helps you see your work from another’s point of view. It’s all about Not Taking Things Personally, and seeing the value in feedback – and knowing the difference between helpful criticism and simple opinion.

Compose your words of wisdom

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s