Writers: Give Some Good With the Bad

A number of years ago, my husband, a great lover of non-fiction and self-help books, bought a copy of The One Minute Manager.  Now, we were teachers and this book seemed to me to be for those stalwarts in the business world.  Nevertheless, he did talk to me a lot about this book as he read it.

And that is how a book I’ve never read has had such a positive effect on my life.

As I understand it, The One Minute Manager suggests that people need to hear what they are doing well, in addition to what they need to improve.  In the first thirty seconds, tell your employee/student/child what they are doing wrong.  Then tell them what they are doing well.

I remember an incident where I had to keep a student after school for something he did.  Well, basically, he was acting like a jerk and continually disrupting the class.  (I phrased it better than that.)  Then I mentioned his good record of finishing his homework and his pleasant personality with the other students.  By ending the interview with his good behavior I was able to send him away on a positive note and the problem never resurfaced.

We all like to hear what we do well.  It gives us a place from which to move ahead and do more things well.

Writers are no different.  We love to have people tell us what they liked about our work, but this doesn’t always happen.  My critique group has been pretty good at balancing the negatives with positives, a situation which I appreciate.  This is not always the case, though, and a totally negative critique can have the opposite effect to what is intended.  The writer is left to think there is nothing good about the work and might even consider giving up.

In the past few months I have had some excellent critiques on The Loyalist’s Wife, my work-in-progress, but always I have had to stop and think in order to recover before I can go back and fix the problems.  Am I sensitive?  Yes, I suppose I am.  This is my baby, you know.  Imagine having someone tell you your child’s brilliant blue eyes would be much more suitable if they were brown.  You get the picture.

But I suppose the thing that would help me the most is critiquers telling in detail not only what doesn’t work but also what works very well.  Find something to like and to praise.  A little praise goes a long way.  One of the most detailed and ultimately useful critiques I’ve received lately was prefaced with a note saying all she mentioned was the bad stuff as that was what needed work.  My thought is that I can much more easily work on the bad stuff if I know what it was that was good.  If I have a reason to keep working on the manuscript.  And so, I thought, once again, about The One Minute Manager.

Have you ever had a scathing critique?  Have you read The One Minute Manager?  How do you approach the job of critiquing your group members’ works? Consider leaving a comment to weigh in on this topic.


11 thoughts on “Writers: Give Some Good With the Bad

  1. I’ve been fortunate in belonging to two consecutive critique groups that were very honest and very supportive. I agee, a little sugar helps the medicine go down, as Julie Andrews sang.


    • Hi Gay! Thanks for adding your words, and you are definitely fortunate in your critique groups. Check out Diane’s (successbemine) comment below. She speaks of someone in a group she was in who totally destroyed a group member’s work, in an unwarranted fit of fury. It’s terrible to sit on the sidelines and watch something like that, too.


  2. Loved this post…you can’t improve unless you know what you’re doing wrong and I’m always asking for people to tell me what my weaknesses are. I’ve never read the One Minute Manager, but I’m considering getting a copy 🙂


  3. Hi,
    Yes, I have read the One Minute Manager and I have read it several times. It is a great book. Another great book is The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey. Criticism without mentioning what one does good is in my opinion destructive. Maybe I am too sensitive, but if you want to get great work out of me, then tell me what I do right first and then mention a few areas you would like to see improvement in, and I respond with a light heart. But, I didn’t learn this from the One Minute Manager, it only reinforced my own observations and experiences in dealing with people.
    To be very honest, I started practicing the Golden rule of treating people like I want to be treated and also practicing the art of not taking myself so seriously some years ago. It does not mean that I don’t take situations or events serious, but that I don’t consider myself to be the expert that knows everything better than everyone else. By doing these two things, i am able to reach out openly to others. When I vary from these principles, I clam up and become critical of others and it makes me miserable.
    Very good blog Elaine and I enjoyed reading it. Your blogs help stimulate my growth and I enjoy that.


  4. We have made it one of the “rules” in our critique group to list those things that we think work well in someone’s work as well as the areas that need some work. I remember one particular night when one of the ladies had her story critiqued. She is a very good writer and often there is not a lot that needs to be changed. But the one man in the group really tore it apart and had her in tears. That is totally inappropriate. To top it all off, he only has a Grade 8 education. His writing was appalling when he first started to come, but with our help and encouragement (it was sometimes very difficult to give) he improved greatly. He may never have anything published but he did present some fairly good stuff once in awhile. But he finally had to be confronted about his occasional lack of mercy when critiquing. It can turn a positive process into a discouraging situation and, as you said, can cause a person to think he/she is no good and give up. He has since left the group.


    • Sounds like a story there, Diane! People in conflict is always a good plot line; in fact, it’s hard to imagine a story without that. Perhaps that man was a good example ‘a little education is a dangerous thing.” He didn’t know enough to know what he didn’t know. Of course, there is no excuse for verbal brutality, is there? Thanks for a great comment!


  5. Mary Kay Ash said always sandwich criticism between two layers of praise. She also said that there are two things people want more than sex and money; Praise and recognition. We usually learn more from criticism than praise but I think it should always be delivered with kindness and generosity of spirit. Good article, Elaine.


  6. My critiques groups are very good at stressing the positive as well as what needs work. Lately, we’ve all said, oops, I didn’t put enough happy faces on the good parts because I was focusing on what needed improvement. I always find their criticism constructive.

    I have had scathing critiques from the contests I’ve entered. Some judges do forget they should comment on what they like as well as where you lost marks. These scathing critiques are the ones that rattle my confidence for a couple days, but then I have to remember the judges who said they loved the story and to please contact them when published. We have to remember, critiques are very subjective, but overall I believe they are imperative to our improvement as writers.


  7. We do all need encouragement. Your analogy of telling someone, ” Your child’s brilliant blue eyes would be much more suitable if they were brown,” is perfect. Writers feel very much like they’ve “birthed” a novel, so tact and encouragement are required.

    I taught English for many years and graded thousands of essays. I always used the sandwich method when giving a critique- observations of good, needs improvement, and good practices (Good-Bad-Good). I tend to do the same with my peer writers. I just looked up and see that Crystal said basically the same thing. 🙂


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