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Creativity coach, writing and creative process instructor, speaker, author of Around the Writer's Block: Using Brain Science to Write the Way You Want (Penguin/Tarcher 2012) and Dancing in the Dragon's Den (Red Wheel Weiser), Teaching Artist at the Loft Literary Center.

The Problem with Praise or How Good Intentions Can Cause Writer’s Block

check-in canstockphoto1873204 (2)You’d think that praise would be the one form of feedback that always benefits the person receiving it, but it’s not. As Charity pointed out in a comment,

“I have a long and varied (and sometimes painful) relationship with feedback. Oddly enough, even praise has paralyzed me. I end up thinking: ‘Well, no way I can top that. Might as well quit while I’m ahead.’”

Some of my students echo Charity –it was the praise they got from a writer they deeply admired that blocked them.

Why some praise motivates, while other praise inhibits

magnet goobi boy_MIn Around the Writer’s Block, I mention research done by Dr. Carol Dweck, psychologist at Stanford University. “…a study with four hundred New York City fifth graders who were given puzzles and then were either praised for their intelligence by a researcher saying, ‘You must be smart at this [sic],’ or praised for their effort by a researcher saying, ‘You must have worked really hard.’ The students were then given the option of working with easy puzzles, similar to the ones they’d just solved, or a more challenging set of puzzles they could learn a lot from.”

Students who were praised for their effort challenged themselves with more difficult puzzles. Students who were praised for their intelligence stayed with the familiar. They saw mistakes as failures, were more easily discouraged and lowered their performance on later tests.

On the other hand, students who were praised for their effort were more willing to take risks, were more engaged with difficult puzzles and improved their performance on later tests.

It matters what we are praised for – being or doing

ready to write canstockphoto2190013 (2)If you are typically recognized for “being a good writer,” aka who you are, praise could easily inhibit your writing. Praise from a respected writer/teacher could block you because, as Charity suggests, you may as well quit while you’re ahead. Even the possibility of failing to receive the same high praise will threaten your definition of yourself as a good writer.

But if you are typically praised for “showing up, working hard, putting in solid effort,” aka for what you do, that praise will likely increase your motivation and inspire you to keep taking the risk of writing.

In AWB, I wrote, “Praising students for their intelligence rewards their performance and focuses their attention on the outcome; praising students for their efforts rewards their willingness to try and focuses attention on the process. Students praised for effort have greater intrinsic motivation to challenge themselves to continue to learn and develop. They are better prepared to respond positively to situations where they don’t have all the answers.”

What’s true for fifth-grade students is true for writers of any age. Not having all the answers is a writer’s life. So we are better off avoiding praise about how talented we are, no matter how good that feels to our ego in the moment.

We should instead ask for feedback about the effort we put in and our willingness to take risks and keep growing. Even better, we should track our efforts and focus our own satisfaction on the effort we put in, not on the results –measured by the number of words or quality of writing — of any given day’s effort.

If the wrong kind of praise can interfere with our writing, imagine what the wrong kind of criticism can do! We’ll explore that in our next post. If you have a “war story” about a request for feedback that turned nasty, mean or just misdirected or a celebration story about how feedback served you as a writer, please share your experience in a comment or email me at Rosanne @RosanneBane.com

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5 Comments on “The Problem with Praise or How Good Intentions Can Cause Writer’s Block”

  1. Joel D Canfield April 2, 2013 at 5:19 pm #

    After I saw Derek Sivers’ video on this idea a few years ago, I looked up Peter Gollwitzer’s research on the subject. Fascinating stuff.

    I’m certain that praise killed my book “How to Do Business with Women When You’re Not One.” The title earned so much praise I never got around to writing the book.

    The parts of your book which expand on this are most helpful. I’m a sucker for praise (oh; it’s not just me?) and I need to keep this stuff straight in my head.


    • rosannebane April 2, 2013 at 6:00 pm #

      Thanks Joel. So do you have any lingering interest in changing the title and writing a book about doing business with women?


      • Joel D Canfield September 18, 2014 at 10:11 am #

        If I ever get back to writing nonfiction, it just might happen, even with that title.


  2. Nan S April 2, 2013 at 4:41 pm #

    Hi, Roseanne, thanks for writing about praise. I often wish feedback came in the form of problem analysis and diagnostics rather than fixing it. It wasn’t until an editor told me I was putting 5 new ideas in a single paragraph that I was able to repair my style. Specifics about what needs changing and why is more helpful to me.


    • rosannebane April 2, 2013 at 6:01 pm #

      You’re welcome Nan. Yes problem analysis could be a better approach — when the writing is ready for it. More about that to come…


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