This week our 13-year-old daughter participated in a music festival for young artists. She has been playing the violin for 8 years, and she had worked hard on the three pieces she played for the adjudicator (judge).
The adjudicator’s first comment to her was “Don’t get me wrong, but you give up before you start.” After that, he pointed out several aspects of her playing that could have been better, and he showed her how to improve them. All were useful suggestions.
When we left the festival, our daughter said, “He said I sucked.” Then she elaborated: “He didn’t say one good thing about my playing.”
Although I will do what I can to shape the experience for her, I predict that all the constructive criticism the judge gave our daughter will be lost. Why? Because, as she complained, “He didn’t say one good thing.” Without “one good thing,” it’s hard to accept the rest of the message.
Writers are like young violinists. They need to hear at least one good thing about their writing in order to listen to the things they can improve.
When you coach writers, tell them what they have done well in addition to what they did wrong. Compliment their crisp format, courteous tone, accurate details, correct punctuation, logical flow, simple sentences–whatever they have done well. The good things they have done create a solid foundation for your constructive feedback to build on. Without that foundation, writers are likely to go away thinking “He said I sucked.”
It doesn’t matter how brilliant your suggestions are. The violin adjudicator is a world-renowned musician, but that didn’t make his tone of criticism any easier to hear.