Writer’s Bookshelf: Toxic Feedback by Joni B. Cole
Book review by Erin Dalpini
J.K. Rowling, Stephanie Meyer, John Grisham, and Stephen King. What do these writers have in common? Their first novels were rejected at least a dozen times (in King’s case, dozens), before being published. Imagine what we would have missed out on if those writers took to heart the negative feedback they received in the form of rejection letters or unanswered queries. Negative feedback stinks. But far worse than negative feedback is toxic feedback, the kind of commentary that makes any writer want to curl up in the corner and wallow or worse yet, stop writing all together.
Experienced writing workshop leader and author Joni B. Cole knows a lot about this kind of feedback. So much, in fact, that she decided to write a book about it. In Toxic Feedback, Cole addresses not only the problem of toxic feedback, but also proper responses to it. If you’ve ever suffered from a severe case of “It’s all wrong”-itis—I’m looking at you, fiction/creative nonfiction writers—take note: this is definitely your go-to book. Toxic Feedback is a light-hearted, engaging look at the best (and worst) ways to process feedback, and how to, a-hem, go about dishing it out in a polite manner.
“As a writer, you have no hope of surviving, let alone thriving in, the feedback process if you don’t first recognize your own role in creating the kind of toxicity that can result in literary paralysis or an assault charge,” asserts Cole. With vigor and spunk, she one-by-one takes on issues writers face when receiving feedback and shares tips for coping with cutting comments and how to make the most of feedback that’s dead on. Interspersed between Cole’s reflections are short interviews with well-known authors, including Julia Alvarez, Gregory Macguire, Jodi Picoult, and others, offering their particular takes on feedback.
Drawing on her experience leading writing workshops, Cole provides humorous examples that illustrate how to discern the beneficial feedback from the downright preposterous. The key to processing feedback, according to Cole, is to remember that “You are the boss of your story. Not the other writers in your critique group. Not the famous author whose workshop you were lucky enough to get into at the Iowa Summer Writing festival. . . . [nor] your mother-in-law.” Her words are a good reminder that one writer can’t possibly implement the barrage of compliments he or she is likely to receive when entering into a workshop setting. Though one should be open-minded, a writer should only utilize feedback that really resonates with his or her story.
Along the way, the book makes a persuasive argument for the power of seeking out feedback. Haven’t yet joined a writers’ workshop? You’ll want to after reading Toxic Feedback. After all, putting your story out there, having it read and discussed, is every writer’s intent, isn’t it?
The second half of the book deals with how to give feedback. Many writers may find themselves putting on the editor’s hat from time to time, whether it is professionally, in a workshop, or by helping a colleague or good friend. Cole and the authors she interviewed share some great things to keep in mind when critiquing a colleague’s work. Specifically, the more specific your criticism—whether positive or negative—the better; the more lucid your comments, the better. Tone of voice, pointing out particularly strong elements of a story also play a part.
Why does learning to give the right kind of feedback make a difference? Writers, think back to a particularly defining moment when someone gave you encouraging feedback, feedback that in fact engendered your writing career. For me, one of those pivotal moments happened in third grade, when after reading a story I’d written for a class assignment, my teacher Mrs. Jackson said she knew that some day I would be a writer. That simple nudge of encouragement ignited a passion for putting words to the page that continued ever since I heard that positive feedback.
“As a feedback provider, you have the opportunity to replenish the good karma. It is in your power to make a positive difference,” writes Cole. “You could be a writer’s small miracle.” What a nice thought to remember.
Best for writers of fiction and creative non-fiction, great for editors and workshop leaders, and certainly an interesting read for other sorts of writers, this book is a strong addition to any writer’s bookshelf. To find out more, visit www.toxicfeedback.com.