Thinking about disciplines that help people see and express the positive made me think of Richard Gabriel’s book, Writers’ workshops & the work of making things: Patterns, poetry, and … . The book is out-of-print, so I’m delighted to find a pdf of the final typeset version online, along with information by the author about its status (follow the link and scroll down). I bought a copy of the book a few years ago when I was preparing to be a “shepherd” for a software patterns workshop – see chapter 10 for a discussion of the role of shepherds.
The process of conducting a writers’ workshop is described step-by-step: who is involved, how to prepare, how to help others prepare (shepherd), role of the moderator, having the author read a section and then become a fly on the wall, summarizing the work, positive feedback, suggestions for improvement, and chances to clarify comments.
Chapter 14 is called Positive Feedback. The author comments that even the arts have been affected by western culture’s focus on finding and fixing problems. After all the problems are pointed out with suggestions for improvement, what is the author to make of the rest of the piece? Is it OK? Or did the people at the workshop just not get to all the problems? What does the author experience? Letdown? Uncertainty? Self-doubt?
So the criticism part of a Writers’ workshop starts with people stating the positive. What really worked? What did the reviewers really like? What would the reviewers keep no matter what else changes in the piece? What parts do the reviewers remember best?
Positive comments are contagious. Here’s a comment from one seasoned technical workshopper (p. 128):
Many times I’ve reviewed a workshop paper where I really could not think of anything positive to say. I didn’t like the name. The solution didn’t work for me, etc. What always happens, however, is that when someone begins with a positive comment, I suddenly see lots of things I can add. This never fails and now I look forward to seeing this miracle happen. It says something about the power of good or the ability we all have to pull each other up.
Starting the criticism period with positive comments is an accepted discipline for these workshops. It means that people actually look for positive things, become mindful of them, and are stimulated by others during the workshop to see positive things they missed.
In my own experience having a paper reviewed at a workshop, hearing the positive comments made me open to hearing the suggestions for improvement that followed. They also helped me see what NOT to change when I made the next revision.
This book is a gift. I’m sorry it is not in-print, since I believe the author deserves royalties. It is very generous of him to make the book available online to any who go looking for it. Thank you, Richard Gabriel!