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Interview - Toxic Feedback

UPNE Interview with Joni B. Cole about Toxic Feedback


Why a book about feedback? Don’t writers just ask their spouse or a friend to comment on their work? (And don’t they just want praise anyway?)


It’s precisely because a lot of writers ask their spouse or friends for feedback that I believe a book on the subject is long overdue. Without a real understanding of how to manage the feedback process, writers are likely to expose themselves to the kind of toxicity that too often leads to discouragement, writer’s block, or, in the case of toxic feedback from a spouse, a lot of long, lonely nights. As to your assertion that writers just want praise—we often think we do. But what we really want is encouragement. We want a sincere appreciation for our efforts. We want readers to carry us around the room on their shoulders in celebration of what’s working fabulously in our piece or shows promise. And in that context, we also want constructive criticism that can clue us in on what’s not working in the writing, and how we can make it better. 


Why “toxic” feedback? Is it really as destructive as you make it sound?


Absolutely, feedback can poison the writing process. If you have any doubt, try this test. Find three random writers, any three will do. Ask them if they know anyone who has experienced a serious setback because of bad feedback, whether it was from a teacher or a writing group, or their mother. Two of the three will instantly tell you this happened to them personally. And the third will know someone who stopped writing altogether because of something someone said about their work or their abilities. Toxic feedback is an avoidable epidemic.


But if criticism is well-intentioned or correct! It can’t be toxic, can it? What if the writer has done something truly stupid? It’s no kindness to let them persist, is it?


Yes, even well intentioned or correct feedback can be toxic. I give lots of examples of this in the book. Here’s one. Say a writer hands you an early draft of a short story to critique, and you find legitimate fault with every aspect of the piece, from its loopy structure to its dangling participles. Is your feedback correct? Maybe. Is it helpful? No, because if you launch such a sweeping attack on the story, the writer’s head is likely to implode. This is no more helpful than name-calling, say calling the writing stupid. Where does one start to revise to address the issue of stupidity?


Why should writers solicit feedback anyway? Especially if it’s going to be toxic? Shouldn’t they remain focused on the work itself?


Feedback isn’t a distraction; it’s a way to help the writer focus on his work. When the process is managed correctly, feedback can offset the loneliness and muddle and even despair that can happen when writing in a vacuum. Feedback can energize and inform the writer; renew her excitement about the piece, or help her break through a difficult scene. Plus, having real live readers respond to our work-in-progress is our only way of discovering whether our stories or poems are communicating and meaning in the way we want them to. And the beauty of feedback is, you can take it or leave it, depending on whether you feel it serves your work.


Is feedback always a matter of looking for problems and making editorial suggestions? What other forms can feedback take?


Feedback can take many forms and should, depending on where the writing is at, and where the writer’s head is at on any given day. Effective feedback can be anything from an affirmation—“You can do this!”—to a lesson on the proper use of semicolons. Feedback is all about the writer. What does she need, right at that moment, to move her work forward.


What should writers look for when seeking a feedback provider?


Good feedback providers come in all shapes and sizes. The other day I was polishing the opening chapter of a mystery novel I’ve just started. My nine-year-old daughter was reading it over my shoulder. I had inserted a brief flashback in the second paragraph, with the main character having a memory of her husband giving her the special broach she was wearing. Later in the same chapter, the husband appears on the scene, and my daughter commented, “but I thought he was dead.” In rereading the opening paragraph, it was obvious that I’d created that impression by having the husband first appear in the protagonist’s memory, but I never would have seen this without my daughter’s feedback.


The point of this anecdote is to brag about my daughter, but also to show that good feedback providers aren’t just people who know the vocabulary of criticism, or who have taught or written for years. Writing professors, authors, agents, and editors are the most obvious resource for feedback, but they aren’t always available (and they aren’t always right or the best readers anyway). In seeking helpful feedback, look everywhere. Listen openly. Solicit a variety of opinions, until you feel you have enough reader response to feel confident the work is done, and you haven’t made any crucial blunders—like giving the impression that one of your main characters is dead!


What tips do you have for writers when receiving feedback? How can they make the best use of the feedback they get? What if the feedback *is* toxic?


A whole section of the book deals with this issue, but, in brief, I would suggest writers remember that it often takes two people to create toxic feedback, with one of those two being the writer. Are you being unduly defensive? Are you paying attention to when feedback serves your writing process, and when it sets you back? Are you being proactive or passive in getting the kind of feedback you need when you need it? (Depending on what draft I’m on, I may seek out more nurturing readers to keep me going, or readers who are going to call me on every misplaced modifier). Are you trying to write by committee, or using feedback to hone your own writerly instincts?


If you do experience toxic feedback, one comfort is to know that you are in good company. Among the thirteen successful authors I interviewed for this book, most of them had received toxic feedback, often early in their careers. What a good reminder not to take devastating feedback to heart, or to let it stop you!


What are some of the common mistakes that feedback providers, even those with the best intentions, make?


Whenever we are asked to critique someone else’s work, it is so easy to let own agendas, neuroses, insecurities, and editorial biases get in the way. We make the interaction more about us and our tastes and our moods, rather than the writer and his work. It’s important to try to rise above these all-too-human tendencies in order to offer a thoughtful response. In addition, we often assume fault-finding is the only way to serve the writer. Yet writers learn just as much (sometimes more) from feedback that illuminates what is working in the piece, or piques our interest. The goal of feedback is to get the writer to rewrite in a productive fashion. Simply illuminating what shows promise in the work is often enough to motivate the writer to go at it again—and oh what a difference a draft or two can make.


What tips do you have for people who have been asked to provide feedback? What points should they keep in mind?


Your role isn’t to “fix” the work; it’s simply to provide an honest reader response. (You don’t even have to be right; you just have to be sincere.) Be specific, both in terms of what you like about the work and why (writers are suspect of sweeping affirmations), and what isn’t working and why (broad condemnations—“this piece is boring;” “I don’t get it”—rarely do the writer any good. Mostly, remember what it feels like to have your own work on the table, and treat the writer the way you would like to be treated.


What’s the difference between feedback from your friend or fellow group member, and feedback from your agent or an editor?


Usually a book contract. If your friend or fellow group member doesn’t think your piece is successful, they have a responsibility (assuming they’ve agreed to give you feedback) to help nurture you and the work along. If your agent or an editor doesn’t like the work—their feedback is likely to be in the form of a rejection, and maybe a brief summary as to why. Agents and editors are in the business of selling books, not helping writers develop their skills. Of course, there are always exceptions. Agents and editors can be nurturing, too, if they see a manuscript’s potential and think it’s worth their time to help you shape it into something they can sell or publish. I’m grateful for any dialogue I can get with an agent or editor—it sure beats a flat-out rejection.


If you already have a book contract, you can expect detailed editorial feedback from your editor at the publishing house. And sometimes you’ll even get it. But I’ve been reading how more and more editors don’t edit anymore. Which makes it all the more important to keep those friends and fellow writing group members handy—because sometimes their feedback is the only thing standing between you and some embarrassing gaffe that you’re sure to hear about from readers who have bought your book.


What are the advantages of participating in a workshop or belonging to a critique group? What are the potential pitfalls?


Some writers really don’t need or do well in a writing group. But for many more, being part of a community of writers—whether it’s through a workshop or a small clique of friends—has so many advantages. You can motivate each other with feedback and deadlines. You can commiserate. You can share publishing contacts. You can gain perspective. Being in the company of writers reminds us of the value and rewards of the writing process itself, and that success isn’t only measured by a publishing contract or a decent Amazon ranking.


Here’s a related story. The other day I was talking to a woman who has been in my writing workshop three successive sessions (each workshop runs for ten weeks). This woman was telling me how far she’s come, and I assumed she was referring to the quality of her writing, and the progress she’s made on her novel. But what she was really talking about was validation. “A year ago, I never would have dared to call myself a writer,” she said. “But now I really feel like one.” And for that reason alone, it’s a great idea to be in a writing group.


What if you can’t find a workshop or critique group? Don’t you have to be some sort of expert to lead such a group?


If you can’t find a workshop (either because there aren’t any around or the available ones are too expensive) definitely form your own writing group. You don’t have to be a writing expert; you don’t even have to be the “leader” of the group. You just have to gather together a handful of like-minded people, and establish some rules up front. How often are you going to meet? Are you going to provide verbal or written critiques, or both? Does everyone have to submit? Vow to take everyone’s work seriously, and to be honest and kind. And every week, put someone in charge of overseeing the discussion so it doesn’t get off track or turn into a feeding frenzy. 


What are some of the most common challenges that critique groups wrestle with?


Varying levels of commitment; burn-out; personality issues. All these thing can undermine any group dynamic. Plus, emotions tend to run high in writing groups, given that most writers consider their words to be an extension of their souls. Still, all these challenges can be met by gently enforcing a few rules, and showing some common, human decency.


Feedback is only useful to unpublished writers, correct? Once you have been published, you’ve “arrived” and you no longer need feedback, right?


Boy, that’s not my reality. With every writing project, I rely on feedback to keep me going and help me make the piece better. Of course, I may not be the best example because I don’t feel I’ve “arrived” anywhere yet. But I know a few authors who have, and they still value feedback. Getting a book published is a “wow” experience…for about nine minutes. But then you start working on something new and it’s feedback—not your past publishing credentials—that can help see you through.


You interviewed a number of published writers for this book. What were their thoughts about feedback? What surprised you most about their responses?


Their thoughts about feedback were varied and illuminating, and their personal feedback stories ranged from touching to jaw-dropping. I learned volumes about the feedback process from these conversations. But the most surprising thing was how much this topic resonated, not just with these successful authors, but with every single writer I spoke with.


Sometimes, I’d invite a writer to tell me about his or her experience with feedback, and the response would be: “Oh, I don’t get feedback on my writing…” Or, “I can’t really remember any particular feedback stories.” But then we’d keep talking and within minutes, they’d be telling me about the three or four trusted readers whose opinions they really value, or the agent whose comment put them off writing for years, or the high school teacher who encouraged them to try writing in the first place. Everybody has a feedback story, for better or worse. Every writer is affected by feedback, so it behooves us all to know how to make the most of this delicate but indispensable resource.

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