Learning to Handle Feedback Well

I once wrote to Joni Cole, author of Toxic Feedback, about her informative and compelling book for writers and teachers of writing on a subject we all talk about but usually don’t see broached over the length of a book.

In the book, she proclaims that

The time has come to rid the world of toxic feedback so that writer’s can avail themselves” of the help others give.

But how to make sure we give and receive feedback that is not toxic to the developing material?

By understanding, Joni said in our conversation, that it “takes two to create the toxicity” and that “writers can convert any kind of feedback into nutritious fertilizer for their writing.”

It has always seemed to me that to use feedback well, writers need to be able to listen to response to their work without defending their work.

Joni agreed, saying  she tought that

effectively receiving or giving feedback does require esteem. Particularly as the writer, you need to value and trust your own writerly instincts above all else, especially when the opinions and comments are flying at you like the Romans, arrows at St. Sebastian. Without a strong writing ego, so many of us, when confronted with criticism, panic, or get depressed, or try to fix the story to meet everyone’s demands. But that’s how we get ourselves in trouble, because I don’t think any piece improves when we write by committee, or under that kind of duress.

Acknowledging yourself as the boss of your story, understanding that as author, you are the most qualified one for that job, makes it possible to hear and sort through all the opinions and suggestions you will receive in writers’ groups and classes. As Joni put it,

It frees you up to listen to even blunt constructive criticism with less defensiveness and more appreciation. And it serves as a reminder that it is your job, as the writer, to consciously manage the process, so that you get the kind of feedback that serves you, your particular writing process, and your work best.

I have always found that just listening and taking notes and not deciding right then if I agree or not, helps me a lot. That way, I listen well and then I let the thoughts of others cook around for a bit. I usually find that I do need to fix things in my drafts, but most often not the way the others had recommended. I must fix it my own way based on the fact that there were areas in which others were jarred or confused or felt they were missing something. That way, feedback became something I love to gather.


4 responses to “Learning to Handle Feedback Well

  1. Interesting topic and one that could provoke a lot of discussion. I never imagined that someone would write an entire book on the subject.

  2. Clive Matson in his “Let the Crazy Child Write” book and workshop has developed a similar system of giving and listening to feedback. It was one of the few places where I felt safe in a writing group.

  3. I was in one group where a member rolled up his sleeves before he spoke, clearly the better to sling mud. I hated it, but at the same time, I did learn from him, and surprising to me, I gained more confidence. Still and all, I prefer the Story Circle Network approach of supportive criticism. You can still offer say things you (your opinion, remember)find lacking or don’t care for, but without the mud. Much cleaner!

  4. Receiving and giving response is a big part of the writing life. I am enjoying this conversation through comments.

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