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:
- “When you are writing, the Universe can leave you a message.”
- “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.”
- “Feedback can also take the form of listening to a writer talk about his work.”
- “Feedback can take the form of brainstorming.”
- “Applying emotional intelligence is the key to detoxifying the feedback process.”
- “…’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.”
- “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.”
- “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?”
- “You are the boss of your own story.”
- “[feedback]…offers something you already knew on a gut level.”
- “Generally speaking, the rougher the draft, the fewer the variables you throw at the writer at once.”
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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.