Q&A with Joni Cole,
author ofToxic Feedback:
Helping Writers Survive and Thrive

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.

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 achieving your intent, and you haven't made any crucial blunders—like giving the impression that one of your main characters is dead!

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 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 our own agendas, neuroses, insecurities, and editorial biases get in the way. We make the interaction more about us and our tastes and our mood, 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 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 excellent 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.

Joni Cole
Photo credit: Randall T. Heller, 2006
 Have a Question About Feedback?

Send an email to joni.cole@alum.dartmouth.org and I'll post my answer (or opinion) here. And if you'd like to share your own "best or worst" feedback story, just send it along!

Copyright © 2006 Joni B. Cole. All rights reserved.