“…[W]riting is a solitary effort, but it doesn’t have to be a lonely one — and that is the real gift of feedback” (p. 4)
The word “feedback” sends my heart racing in excitement and throws my stomach in a lurch at the same time, a feeling similar to the last time I rode a Ferris wheel.
On the ride up, I giggled in anticipation. When we crested the top and then started our descent, I gripped the safety bar. A few times around on that thing and I started to feel weary, even a little sick; certainly, I felt disappointed. I thought I could handle it. Everybody else seemed to be having a good time. But, when the operator finally said the words I longed to hear – “time’s up” – I was more than ready to get off.
Anticipation, elation, disappointment.
Joni B. Cole writes about these emotions, and more, in her book, Toxic Feedback: Helping Writers Survive and Thrive.
At first glance, you might think the title implies that writers are victims. However, Cole writes about the experience of the feedback giver and the receiver. She explains that it’s just as important to learn to give it, as well as to learn to receive it.
Cole begins her book by redefining “feedback” in an effort to shed the negative context that often surrounds the word. Feedback, Cole says, ranges from the typical critique of one’s work, to probing questions that encourage the writer to talk about the work, to a much needed walk with a friend so that the writer can decompress before returning to the work.
Cole continues her positive vein of thought on feedback throughout the book. She discusses several obstacles writers face during the critique process and offers strategies for working with editors or dealing with “vision planters” (as she calls writers who try force their opinion on how another writer’s story should unfold). And, she shares her own story on how she’s survived the inevitable period of “waiting for feedback.”
Cole’s purpose for writing her book is two-fold: to teach feedback givers how to foster positive experiences for writers and to remind writers that we have an equal part to play in that successful end:
Just as every good feedback provider has a responsibility to arrive at the Moment of Truth, every feedback receiver, too, has a responsibility to keep it together enough to face the Truth, and use it to become a stronger writer (p. 89-90).
I’ve reached that “Moment of Truth” during a critique before, and though it was painful, I’m a better writer because I kept an open mind and listened.
And that is exactly Cole’s point: to grow as a writer, we can’t live without feedback, and we can learn to love it.
As a bonus (for me anyway), Cole ends her book with a section devoted to putting on your own workshop. This section comes complete with writing activity ideas, a template itinerary, and strategies for dealing with unruly discussions.
There’s much to gain in reading Toxic Feedback. Not only does Cole share her own experiences, but she includes interviews and essays throughout from other authors on their feedback successes and failures, authors like Archer Mayor, Khaled Hosseini, and Jodi Picoult.
One last quote from Cole’s book speaks to the value of feedback:
As writers, we are the accumulation of all the writing we have done in our lives. We learn from writing things that work, and we learn just as much from writing things that don’t work (p. 149).
Just as there is an art to writing, there is an art to giving, and receiving, feedback.
Leave a comment below to be entered into the drawing for a free copy of Cole’s book. I’ll draw the winner’s name on Tuesday, August 31st.
* Cole, Joni B., Toxic Feedback: Helping Writers Survive and Thrive. New Hampshire: University Press of New England, 2006. Print.