book reviews / writing

10 Tips from Toxic Feedback

Toxic Feedback: Helping Writers Survive and ThriveToxic Feedback: Helping Writers Survive and Thrive

by Joni B. Cole

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have to admit, when I heard Joni Cole had asked a writers group I’m involved with to review her book Toxic Feedback (University Press of New England, 2006)–an elemental discussion on how to give and take criticism, I jumped at it. I just finished the final edit of my current thriller ( is it ever really final in the writing world?), which meant I no longer had to submit to the well-intentioned-but-depressing opinions of my writer’s group Don’t get me wrong–I love these people. They spend a lot of time helping me get better. But OMG it’s painful! They don’t understand how to provide positive critiques–the type that motivate a writer to do better and not give up. Every time I’ve been the bulls eye of their reviews, I’ve come home swearing to never write again. There are two possible reasons: 1) the members don’t know how to critique, or 2) I don’t know how to accept criticism.

Or both. Who knows? Either way, when this opportunity showed up in my email box, I figured the Universe was talking to me.

Granted, I didn’t miss the conundrum of critiquing a book on criticism. What if I didn’t like Cole’s book? Could she accept my ‘toxic criticism’?

A little background on Joni Cole. She’s the creator of the popular series This Day and 2011 Pushcart Prize nominee, as well as a leader of fiction-writing workshops for over ten years. Within the first ten pages, I knew Cole understood me. I, like so many writers I know, am sensitive, easily-insulted, always with a brave front that is only skin deep, desperate for acceptance of my novel, sure that despite my nine published books, I am not any good and my naysayers have seen through my kingly trappings. When I get the writer’s blues, it’s more like the blacks. Cole provided armor against the toxic criticism of my well-intentioned friends. She shares information like:

  • only 14% of feedback is dead on (I am so relieved). The rest is from people who don’t know our genre or have a personal agenda that doesn’t include the success of our manuscript
  • most criticism isn’t as bad as it sounds. We at the receiving end of it merely think it’s a razor blade aimed at our jugular.
  • we are the boss of our story, not them. We decide if a character is shallow or a scene needs more sex or truth should be replaced with more exciting prose

Cole’s book is easy to read, with lots of anecdotal experiences from successful writers about their experiences with toxic feedback. She addresses the nightmare of a writer’s world with a light sense of humor and a depth of understanding that tells me she’s seen one too many flawed critiques. Of course she has. Cole’s writer’s workshops attempt to guide new authors not only in writing skills but how to handle the inevitable criticism that comes with the territory. Most of us equate ‘feedback’ with ‘criticism’. She explains the concept of feedback, defines it, discusses it from the viewpoint of those who give and those who receive, shares educated thoughts on its relevance in a writer’s ultimate success. She offers ways to tell writers if feedback is true (such as, is there a consensus of opinion on a particular point) and tips for processing it (resist the urge to explain your position; ignore feedback until you are ready for it).  Cole has a folksy, friendly voice that makes me want to listen, like a friend who understands my concerns, my backstory. She reminds readers that ‘criticism’ is neutral. It isn’t always the bad stuff. As often (or more often–maybe as much as 3:1) it should be what the writer is doing correctly so they don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. She even provides guidance for taking criticism from your editor (you don’t have to capitulate) for those of us with editors who actually… edit.

In short, I liked everything about this book–except for one item: the cover. Skeletal hands slapped over a keyboard? Is that really the intent of her book? Cover notwithstanding, I strongly recommend this for everyone involved in a critique group, writing a book or leading a writer’s feedback group to be sure everyone approaches critiquing in a non-toxic manner.

How do you provide feedback to fellow writers? Here are ten tips:

  1. “When you are writing, the Universe can leave you a message.”
  2. “Feedback can help you polish your skills, hone your writerly instincts, and massage your words into shapely prose r poetry much faster than going it alone.”
  3. “Feedback can also take the form of listening to a writer talk about his work.”
  4. “Feedback can take the form of brainstorming.”
  5. “Applying emotional intelligence is the key to detoxifying the feedback process.”
  6. “…’the feedback sandwich’, which advises that when you are critiquing something …you will meet with more receptivity if you start with a positive comment and end with a positive comment.”
  7. “Most people think positive feedback is when a reader says something nice about a writer’s story, and negative feedback is when the readers says something critical.”
  8. “The next time you find yourself immediately feeling angry or defensive or despondent during a critique of your work, as yourself the following question: Is it you… or is it them?”
  9. “You are the boss of your own story.”
  10. “[feedback]…offers something you already knew on a gut level.”
  11. “Generally speaking, the rougher the draft, the fewer the variables you throw at the writer at once.”

More posts on writing:

14 Things Writers Do Before 8am

Can You Mix Genres in Your Writing?

5 Ways to Write Like Your Hair’s on Fire

____________________________________________________________________________________


Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for Examiner.com and TeachHUB, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, monthly contributor to Today’s Author and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. In her free time, she is  editor of technology training books for how to integrate technology in education. Currently, she’s editing a techno-thriller that should be out to publishers next summer.

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25 thoughts on “10 Tips from Toxic Feedback

  1. “Only 14% of feedback is dead on” . And that’s true about all feedback, not just for writers. (I’m not a writer, by the way!)The hard part must consist of separating the wheat from the chaff. And treasuring those rare gems of honest opinions.

    Following you, by the way, because I’m trying to figure out how one woman can do so much with her time! ;-) And because this is an excellent blog.

    • I think it’s my Irish genetics. We are workers, aren’t we?

      And you’re right about the value of feedback. We should all think twice before taking advice to heart.

      Thanks for the visit!

      • Haha! Like the one about the Irish genetics. I think though, it’s the ones who emigrated that had that in their DNA! The laid back ones were left behind!

        Happy St Patrick’s Day!

  2. First off, Happy St. Pat’s to you, Jacqui. A real Irish person on St. Patrick’s Day. Imagine that.

    Your reviews always send me scrambling. This sounds like a must read. I belonged to a critique group for a while, but it stopped being helpful. Reading is so subjective but still good feedback is hard to find even when it hurts.

  3. This resonated with me. My first novel was published on Saturday and I am now worrying that A) no one will notice it and my publisher will drop me or B) they will notice it, rip it to shreds and my publisher will drop me. Other than that it has been an exciting experience

    • What about Door C, Peter? Reading your blog shorties, I’m sure that’s the best choice (assuming it offers something like ‘crowds overwhelm supply. Publisher issues emergency stock-up. Author is feted on Fox News’).

  4. You’ve spoken my heart again Jacqui– I also need/get/love to have critiques on my writing. But, why is it so hurtful even when she is telling the truth?
    A prominent Irish novelist and CR teacher gives me guidance and feedback on my writing. I use too much exposition and back story in my writing. It’s great that she highlights my weaknesses and as a result I’m trying to overcome this disease. And I will not leave her company even if she kicks me out [like that Indian epic worrier who worshiped the statue of his teacher who refused to teach him archery because he was from a lower caste]. But why, oh why does she use those additional negative adjectives in her critique??? Isn’t feedback meant to the constructive, encouraging and positive?
    A happy St Patrick’s Day. Arun

    • I always tend toward positive. That seems so much more useful. Not–‘You’re great! Love your writing! But good and bad. I’ve met few writers who are all bad. Well, none. Amazing innit?

  5. When i first read feedback it feels personal and hard to hear but when I take a step back and try and understand where it is coming from I always learn something and that is the key. Picking out the bits you can use and throwing the rest out. Love this post, I would love to see you write a post on how to write a strong review Jacqui I have not read a post on this anywhere. Thanks, by the way my dark mind loves the skeleton hands.

  6. I read Toxic Feedback cover to cover before I ventured into the world of critiques, and I think it’s an amazing book. Joni Cole has a great writing style and had me laughing and smiling the whole way through. Thanks for reminding me of what a great read this was.
    I agree with you about the cover, BTW. The library edition I read had a plain cover, so I was surprised to see this in its paperback edition.

  7. Jacqui, another book I will have to buy. You’re killing my budget, you know.
    It was you who taught me some of the etiquette (If I have any at all) about how to give a critique. I remember you always saying, “Now, say something nice.” And you were right about that.
    However, I did always feel that critiques of my own work were useful, and I always started revisions that night as soon as I got home. I knew whose crits were worthless and whose offered valuable insight, meaning, the ones I needed to seriously consider.
    It’s always been my book, as yours has always been yours, and I never wrote to please the piper. I’ve made changes wherever I felt they would contribute and done nothing just because Critti said so.
    But the biggest changes I’ve made have been after longish periods of hibernation where I’ve let my book sit and then have re-read it with a new and selfly critical eye. I’ve then discovered what I think are the biggest areas that needed revision.
    One thing I know is that I get to a point where incremental crits of my work are worthless, usually about 1/4 or 1/3 through the story, and I need someone to read the entire manuscript with that big vision thing. Have not found that person yet. Either those readers don’t volunteer (my usual problem) or those readers are good-hearted but have no idea what to look for.
    I have beta read for a friend. I gave what I hoped was lots of solid commentary. She told me that she found it the most helpful of the beta reads that she got, so maybe I have improved. I certainly hope so.
    Thank you for giving enough of a feel for this book to know that it is one I really do need to read.

    • Having personally benefitted from your critiques, you definitely put the time in required to help a writer. If you put ‘Will Betaread for Likes’ on your website, you’d be flooded.

      Did you go to the meeting last night? Hope it went well!

  8. Because our books are our babies it’s hard when someone says. ‘yikes, what an ugly baby!’ The reviews I receive from complete strangers are far better than the opinions I get from friends so I like to stick with the ‘complete stranger’ reviews :D

    This sounds like a great book and I’ll certainly be getting a copy.

    • I worry that strangers may have an agenda that precludes a useful review for me. Now, my efriends–like you–I don’t consider strangers so those reviews would be valuable.

      I guess I’m quibbling over the definition of the word ‘complete’…

  9. Sounds like an interesting book. Maybe I’d benefit from reading it, if only I were involved in any writing or critiquing any more. Thanks for reviewing it. You did a good job, as always.

  10. Honestly, when I read your post and all the comments here, I consider retiring from critiquing. I have felt the sting of critical commentary, as well as offered my own. None of it is easy! Perhaps just asking for 3 things that worked for the reader, and 3 things that didn’t work…then the author could decide if that person is his natural reader and how much weight to give the feedback. Detailed analysis tend to be so individual and draining, it seems. I often think I’d rather be writing than critiquing. It seems critique groups could benefit from periodic session of ‘critiquers training/re-training’!

    • That would be a pretty good approach, Diana–three of each. Too often, IMHO, critiquers think their job is to point out mistakes not skills. I tend toward the latter (unless I get annoyed) because I appreciate the effort required to put your writer self on the chopping block.

  11. I’ve never been a part of a writer’s group. I got invited once and ended up reading the most disjointed bizarre piece of fiction. I couldn’t bring myself to critique (because I knew I’d crush his heart) that I quit right there. Maybe if we’d had this list I could have stuck with it but the whole endeavor felt like an enormous waste of time. At some point I’d like to try it again, but with people who are serious about writing and have a similar genre. (No horror or experimental fiction for me.)

    • A good approach when critiquing a novice is big ideas–plot, characters, grammar, that sort. Don’t get into the weeds at all. At that level, there’s always something nice to say (“I like how your character responds to the protagonist”).

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