Toxic Feedback Introduction:
Every Writer Has a Story
by Joni B. Cole 
When my husband was in graduate school and I was still trying to figure out what to do with my life, I decided to take a continuing education course in fiction writing. My professor had all the markings of a genius, literary and otherwise. His novels broke ground and enjoyed dismal sales. Like fellow geniuses Norman Mailer and Joyce Carol Oates, he assigned a mystique to the sport of boxing that is lost on me. And his course cost $2,432, an amount roughly equivalent to the annual earnings of a freelance writer, which I happened to be at the time.

      Once a week, every student submitted a story to the professor, who then judged whether it was worthy for discussion by the group. If he chose your story for the class to discuss that evening, he insisted the writer remain anonymous, similar to how newspapers handle the coverage of crimes committed by juvenile delinquents. With great trepidation, I submitted my first piece to the professor. Because my entire self worth (at the time, anyway) depended on the professor’s reaction to those twenty pages, I cheated, naturally. I submitted a story I had been working on diligently for over a year. This was a story excavated from the mines of my personality, roiling in turmoil yet tinged with bittersweet humor. This was a story forged in the traditional framework of conflict, crisis, epiphany, resolution. This was a story I had received an “A” on in a community college creative writing class I had participated in a few months earlier.

      This was not the story the professor chose for discussion. That evening, our class critiqued a short piece that consisted entirely of messages on a suicidal woman’s answering machine. In hindsight, I realize that this was the more sophisticated piece, actually quite powerful, but that’s not the point of this anecdote.

      After class, the professor summoned me and the other writer-rejects to his podium, and wordlessly returned our submissions from the previous week. The teacher’s stigmata of academia: the shapeless brown corduroy blazer with blue slacks; the faint odor of a tobacco shop from the 1960s; the world-weary weight of his briefcase, all precluded me from wasting his time by asking, “Well?” Later, however, behind the lowered green industrial shades that accessorized my apartment in married student housing, I extracted the manuscript from my backpack and perused the story page by page for his feedback.

      Nothing. Nada. No red ink, no finger smudges, no telltale splotches of bourbon. Then I turned the manuscript over and there, on the back of the back page, I found it. The professor’s feedback, three scrawled words: It’s all wrong. That was the professor’s response to a year’s worth of creative effort. It’s all wrong. What was I to do with that? Outside my drawn shades, I could hear the barely muted roar of the college’s lawn-care crew racing around on their riding mowers, charged with keeping the grounds of married student housing as close-cropped as Oliver North’s head. Rrrr. It’s all wrong. Rrrr. It’s all wrong. To this day, whenever I hear the roar of a riding mower, the phrase It’s all wrong reverberates between my ears.

      Later, I calculated the cost of that professor’s feedback: $810 per word, based on the class tuition. But his feedback cost me much more than money. Those three words confirmed what my own insecurities had been whispering to me all along, I was an outsider; I had nothing of importance to say; I would never be a real writer. The professor’s response to my writing is what I call “toxic feedback” because it made me lose ground and lose confidence as a writer. 

      That fiction-writing class is ancient history, but my experience with toxic feedback left an indelible impression on my psyche. I almost quit writing, but I didn’t. I wrote more short stories, and I still call myself a freelance writer, though I’ve added other labels over the years: editor, author, fiction-workshop instructor, and temp, not necessarily in that order. Despite the professor’s serious blow to my self-esteem (he never did choose any of my work for discussion in the class), I continued to write because writing for me, as is the case with so many other people, isn’t simply a matter a confidence or success, but compulsion.

      Something inside writers makes them need to put words on the page, regardless of their boot-stomped egos. Writers may ignore or deny that need for years out of fear or good excuses or lame excuses, but the need remains, manifesting in a sense of excitement and agitation when an intriguing idea or character pops into their consciousness, whispering insistently,” Write about me! Write about me! Wouldn’t I make a great story?!” You know this anticipatory, antsy feeling if you are a writer. You also know this feeling if you have ever taken Dimetapp Cough Suppressant.

    For the past twelve years, I have been teaching fiction writing to adults in my community. Some of the participants who come to my writing workshops are new to the craft, others have been publishing for years. Some join the group because they are in the throes of working on their latest novel or short story; others join because they need help getting started. Regardless of these differences, most of them arrive at that first meeting ready to bolt. As the participants introduce themselves to the other members in the circle, they begin to apron wring and apologize for their narrative failures before they have even shared one word of their writing in class. They admit they are nervous wrecks about submitting their stories to the group for feedback. Where is this coming from? These people are not wimps. By day, they take on much riskier tasks: brain surgery; childrearing; insurance billing. So why would a writing workshop intimidate them? Of course, I knew the answer all along.

    It’s all wrong.

    Almost every writer has a story, some sad tale about how a teacher, fellow writer, critique group or workshop, friend, boss, spouse, parent, agent, editor, or rogue reader provided them with toxic feedback that made them doubt their abilities, distrust their own voices, sabotage their stories, or just feel really, really lousy. Once exposed to toxic feedback, some people actually stop writing, sometimes for years, sometimes for a lifetime. Others keep scribbling away, but avoid feedback for fear of harsh criticism, burying their unread novels or poems or essays at the bottom of their sock drawer, alongside other shameful secrets like those leftover European Royalty diet capsules and miracle wrinkle removers ordered from late-night infomercials. Still others continue to write and solicit feedback, viewing the process as a necessary evil.

    Necessary it is. Evil, it isn’t—because only feedback can answer the ultimate question: are you connecting with your readers? With the exceptions of creating a secret diary or a grocery list, most writing is intended to communicate something meaningful to someone other than yourself, whether it is a life story in the form of a memoir or the power of forgiveness in a ten-line verse. Without the benefit of feedback during the drafting process, how do you know whether your words are achieving your intent? How do you recognize the weak passages or missed opportunities when your only perspective is the one inside your own head? How do you know if the reader is moved by your writing, or wants to move on?

    The time has come to rid the world of toxic feedback so that writers can avail themselves of this invaluable but tainted resource. With the understanding that it takes two to create toxic feedback, we can move beyond pseudo-solutions for improving the feedback process, such as telling writers to toughen up, as if toxic feedback wouldn’t be an issue if these artistic types would just get a backbone. We can also stop vilifying feedback providers, as if a lack of awareness of what motivates writers makes people inherently toxic. I suppose there are a few feedback providers who are truly malevolent, but my experience as a workshop leader has taught me that most feedback providers mean well, even when they are saying something horrifically insensitive. Even people in love, especially people in love, generate toxic feedback. Consider the true story of the once happily married writers who provided feedback to each other during their collaboration on a self-help book. The book was successful, but now the children only see their father every other weekend.

    The intent of Toxic Feedback is to help writers not only survive criticism, but thrive in the feedback process. This book is for every struggling writer who wants to do less struggling and more writing. (Can you imagine!) It is for feedback providers who want to empower writers, and enjoy the sense of satisfaction that comes from helping someone achieve a work of merit. And it is for writing workshops and critique groups that want to leave every participant informed and energized by this communal experience.

    My own experiences receiving and giving feedback contributed to the insights and opinions that follow, as did my conversations with a diversity of writers, teachers, editors, and other knowledgeable people inside and outside the writing realm. This book also includes my interviews with thirteen successful authors across genres who generously shared their own feedback stories—from the inspiring to the incredible. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, the myth of the lone (and lonely) writer continues to loom large, and with it the unhealthy assumption that real writers toil in isolation. By offering instruction to writers and feedback providers on how to manage this vital but delicate dynamic, my hope is to dispel this myth once and for all. Yes, writing is a solitary effort, but it doesn’t have to be a lonely one—and that is the real gift of feedback.

book cover


 University Press of New England 
 Creative Writing
ISBN: 1-58465-544-5
July 2006 | $ 16.95

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