Friday, July 1, 2011

Toxic Feedback. We've All Received It. Joni Cole Tells Us What to Do About It

We’ve all experienced it. A brutal critique of our writing that has sent our little hearts a-fluttering and our self-esteem plummeting to the floor.

It is every writer's hope to find a supportive community in which to nurture our writing. Joni B. Cole, a writer, writing teacher, essayist and a 2011 Pushcart Prize nominee, wants to help writers find this creative utopia by learning to give as well as get better feedback. She hopes to achieve this through her book, Toxic Feedback.

Why did you decide to write Toxic Feedback?

About twelve years ago, in one of the writing workshops I teach, I learned that several of the participants were either refugees from previous classes where they had experienced toxic feedback, or were closet writers terrified to go public.

At that first meeting, I did a timed writing exercise and then invited participants to share what they had written. As usual, the panic was palpable. I remember one fellow in particular whose hands and voice shook as he read his exercise aloud.

Where was this fear coming from? Years of doing my own workshop had taught me that feedback doesn’t have be something writers dread or endure. In fact, when the process is managed properly, feedback is nothing but positive, even when it’s critical.

Seeing that writer’s hands shake as he read his piece aloud, I didn’t exactly think in that moment—hey, I’m onto a good book idea here. But it did register that this issue was real and really mattered. Almost every writer in that room, including me, had experienced toxic feedback at some point. And that’s when it hit me. This isn’t right. I wanted to do something about it.

What kind of a resource do you hope Toxic Feedback can provide for writers?

The general goal of the book is to raise people’s consciousness about how we give and receive feedback in the writing realm, and the world in general. Put another way, my goal, lofty as it may sound, is to help writers write more, write better, and be happier.

When does feedback get toxic?

My definition of toxic feedback is anything that undermines the writer or the writing. Which is not to say that negative feedback (or constructive criticism, to put it more nicely) is inherently toxic. In fact, far from it. Writers actually want to hear what they are doing wrong in order to fix it. But constructive criticism can easily turn toxic if the feedback provider gets lazy, or forgets that the exchange is all about what the writer needs right then, to move her work forward.

For example, writers can handle specifics; it’s the generalities that bring them to their knees. Yet too many feedback providers toss off easy (and dismissive) responses: “I don’t get it…” “This is boring…” Another example: red-penciling a manuscript to death—even if your heart is in the right place—usually comes across as toxic. Remember, some writers can choke on a crumb, so don’t get carried away with your brilliant insights. If you deliver your feedback in measured quantities, and with appreciation for what the writer has already achieved on the page, then she is much more likely to actually hear your feedback, and process it more effectively.

What are your tenets for providing feedback?

Here is the most important one: spend as much time (if not more) on positive feedback. What specifically is working in the text? Where were you blown away in the story? What passages exemplify good writing? Obviously, this kind of positive feedback is lovely for the writer to hear, and for that reason alone it’s important. But more to the point, positive feedback is hugely instructive in helping the writer build her story from its strengths up with confidence and direction.


Joni B. Cole is the author of the forthcoming book, Another Bad-Dog Book: Tales of Life, Love, and Neurotic Human Behavior (PublishingWorks), Toxic Feedback: Helping Writers Survive and the anthology, Water Cooler Diaries: Women Across America Share Their Day at Work.


  1. My CP and I use the terms "Sugar" and "Salt." We say, "Here's the Chapter. I'm looking for about 25% Sugar and 75% Salt this time." That lets the other person know how much "negative" or "salty" feedback we're really looking for. To be completely honest, we got so comfortable doing this, we started asking for almost nothing but Salt, because it didn't feel so harsh anymore when we were still "in control."

    I do love using those terms to lighten things up, and have found it equally affective in creative writing classes. I've actually had people from other revision groups in my classes ask to join ours because it looked like we were having such a good time, and our critiques were actually thorough and useful! Even when they weren't predominantly positive!

  2. Hi Christine, that's great advice! I have had both a great time with writing groups and an awful one. It's great when people are positive and realize how much time you've spent that week, whipping up new pages for everyone to read. You're there for them to tell you how to make the pages better, of course. But it sucks when people slam you, especially if they're not as committed to the craft as you are. I want to hear how my writing can be made better. But I don't want to be abused. :-)

  3. Great information. Wondered here from the blogfest. Looking forward to reading more.

  4. Great article.

    Toxic feedback is ... toxic. Something we have to learn to tune out.