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Toxic Feedback

Helping Writers Survive and Thrive

Joni Cole

Publication Year: 2009

All writers have stories of how some teacher, workshop participant, friend, or spouse gave them commentary that undermined their confidence and their writing. This "toxic feedback" has tainted feedback's reputation as a whole, causing too many writers to avoid or mismanage this valuable resource.

In the first book to focus on this vital but delicate dynamic, Joni B. Cole applies first-person experience, real-life teaching examples, and her own unique ability to entertain while reaffirming the many merits of feedback. Cole shows writers how to use feedback to energize and inform their writing at every stage of the process. For feedback providers, she delivers insights into constructive criticism and the difference between being heard and being obnoxious. Finally, she offers advice to workshops and critique groups on how to thrive in this collective experience.

In addition, established writers ranging from Julia Alvarez and Khaled Hosseini to Gregory Maguire and Jodi Picoult share their own feedback stories -- from useful to inspiring to deranged -- underscoring Cole's message that feedback plays a critical role in every writer's success.

Through a mixture of instruction, anecdotes, and moral support, Cole manages to detoxify the feedback process with humor and without laying blame, inspiring both sides of the interaction to make the most of this powerful resource.

Published by: University Press of New England


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pp. i-ii

Title Page

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pp. iii-vi


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pp. vii-x

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Introduction: Every Writer Has a Story

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pp. 1-4

When my husband was in graduate school and I was still trying to figure out what to do with my life, I decided to take a continuing education course in fiction writing. My professor had all the markings of a genius, literary and otherwise. His novels broke...

Rethinking Feedback

What is Feedback?

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pp. 7-9

Getting Feedback

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Is It You . . . or Is It Them?

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pp. 17-20

When a feedback provider criticizes a writer’s work—say he tells the writer his story could use some editing, or is pretty clever, or he didn’t get around to reading it yet—a lot of writers react in one of the following ways. They either begin loathing themselves because...

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Processing Feedback

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pp. 21-28

Here is what most writers forget: You are the boss of your own 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. Not even your mother-in-law who comes...

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Twenty-Two Years

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pp. 29-31

One time I went with a friend of a friend to lunch, my treat, so I could pick his brain about feedback. This man was a children’s librarian and aspiring author who had just received a knock-your-socks-off publishing deal for his first novel. I’m talking about the kind...

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Editing Your Editor

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pp. 32-42

In the original version of the game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, the young man in the hot seat was stumped by the following question, worth $64,000: “What color does litmus paper turn when it comes into contact with acid—red, blue, green, or yellow?” The contestant stroked his chin and thought for a few, prolonged...

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“Danger, Danger, Will Robinson!”

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pp. 43-49

So here I am in the bustling lobby of Big Time Publishers in New York City. I am here with my two partners in the book project This Day in the Life to meet with an editor from Big Time who told our agent she loves our proposal and wants to discuss it with us in person. As I am going through the building’s security...

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The Club

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pp. 50-53

I know what it feels like to be an outsider, to be a wannabe in a world where everyone else seems to belong to “The Club.” I understand this sense of isolation and dejection because that is how I feel whenever I listen to...

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Waiting for Feedback

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pp. 54-59

Wednesday at 10:07 a.m. you send your finished manuscript to your agent, who has agreed to shop it around to publishers. Your immediate reaction is elation. You have done it! You are magnificent! Fame and riches will soon be yours! A celebration is in order; that is, if...

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The Value of Toxic Feedback

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pp. 60-62

When I was a teenager, I obsessed about my looks to the point where my mother’s refrain became, “Oh for God’s sake, get away from that mirror. No one’s going to be looking at you anyway.” Years later, I recognized...

Giving Feedback

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Preventing Mental Meltdowns

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pp. 65-68

Here is a scientific fact: People can only process small amounts of information at a time before their heads implode (figuratively speaking). This reality was actually quantified in a recent study by cognitive-science researchers at the University of Queensland, who concluded that four is the maximum number of individual...

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The Power of Positive Feedback

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pp. 69-77

I am writing to let you know how much I disagree with you and your sunny-minded colleagues about the power of positive feedback. Today’s classrooms and bookshelves are filled with bad writing. Bad, bad, bad. Writing is a discipline. At the end of the day, the job has to be...

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A Right Way and a Wrong Way

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pp. 78-81

Some examples of the wrong way to give feedback are so blatantly wrong they need no explanation. Years ago an advertising executive friend of mine was working at a large insurance company. He took a draft of his first writing project to his boss, the head of creative...

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Can You Please Be More Specific!

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pp. 82-87

Beth Rider is an assistant professor of pediatrics and codirector of the Communication Skills Teaching Program at Harvard Medical School. Part of Beth’s job is to provide feedback workshops for faculty and medical students, who seem to have no issues with peering...

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The Moment of Truth

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pp. 88-91

If you know anything about the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, you have probably heard stories about the late, great Frank Conroy, who served as the director of the program for eighteen years and loved his job of helping emerging writers. I never went to this...

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Common Human Decency

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pp. 92-97

Every year, Houghton Mifflin publishes The Best American Short Stories, an anthology of twenty stories culled from thousands that were published in magazines in the United States and Canada the previous year. The series editor also chooses an additional hundred short stories of distinction, and lists them by title and author in the...

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Editorial Biases

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pp. 98-101

I can’t stand it when pets die in stories. In fact, I like to think that if I had been Steinbeck’s editor when he wrote The Red Pony, I could have saved generations of kids a lot of wasted heartache. This is one of my editorial biases, and so whenever I am critiquing a story...

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Get That Look Off Your Face

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pp. 102-107

When I was growing up, my parents had no tolerance for whining or self absorption, which I think was the main reason I felt put out much of the time. How could I appreciate an otherwise happy childhood when the world did not always revolve around me? As a result, I spent...

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Small Miracles

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pp. 108-110

Maybe because I am a writer, and the opposite of intimidating to anyone who meets me, people are always asking me for feedback on their stories, book proposals, articles, even cover letters for job applications, though I haven’t had a real job in years. Usually I say yes, partly...

In the Company of Writers

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Hey, Let’s Put On a Workshop!

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pp. 113-117

You tried a writing workshop advertised on a flyer on the wall of the health food store, but it turned out to be more of a support group for aging hippies. You took a community college course on fiction writing, but now that you’ve passed with a...

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How to Have a Good Group Discussion

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pp. 118-123

Have you ever been in a workshop when a submission comes up for review and a silence falls over the group? Not the kind of silence that feels like people are gathering their thoughts, or reliving the sex they wish they’d had last night, but the kind of silence that implies no one can think of anything remotely useful or good to say...

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Who’s in Charge?

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pp. 124-129

The worst writing group I was ever in consisted of six friends, all fictionwriting instructors and workshop leaders. You should have seen us, posturing and pontificating just to show how smart we were, feuding and fuming over each other’s personality defects...

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The Top Ten Rules of a Successful Writing Group

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pp. 130-133

W. Somerset Maugham reportedly once said, “There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately no one knows what they are.” I’d like to add here that there are also rules for writing groups . . . and I think I’ve figured them out....

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Meet the World’s Worst Workshop

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pp. 134-137

Any workshop instructor can tell you, there are certain types of participants who show up in their classes on a regular basis and irritate the bejesus out of everybody else. It is easy to recognize these types when they are sitting next to you, ruining the group...

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Publishing 101

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pp. 138-142

The first time I went to a panel discussion on how to get published, it took me months to recover. The independent publisher who sat on the panel spent much of his time prophesizing the demise of his financially strapped company. The representative from one of the big publishing houses lectured on the need for writers to do more...

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Can Creative Writing Be Taught?

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pp. 143-148

A creative-writing instructor once informed me, “You know, you can’t really teach creative writing. People come to my class and they’re writers or they’re not.” Says who? I thought. And how can you tell the difference— from their GPAs? Their ability to pronounce...

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In Appreciation of Bad Writing

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pp. 149-152

I often get asked (privately) by members of my writing workshop, “How can you always find something positive to say about every submission?” Sometimes I suspect that they think I am a Pollyanna or just faking my enthusiasm; but the truth is, I really do...

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Epilogue: Feedback and the Real World

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pp. 153-154

The other day I hurried out the front door, late for meeting a friend for coffee at the bookstore. I stepped outside to find that the car was gone, or at least the only car I can drive because our other rust-bucket is a standard, and I never was able to learn how to shift and...

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pp. 155-156

Six years ago, I started jotting down notes for a book about feedback, but then children, a few other book ideas, and a wee bit of procrastination intervened. All that time, however, my enthusiasm for the idea never waned. I knew just what I wanted to say about feedback, if...

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About the Author

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pp. 157-169

A professional writer and editor, Joni B. Cole is the creator of the This Day in the Life books, including This Day: Diaries from American Women (2003) and This Day in the Life: Diaries from Women across America (2005). She has led fiction-writing workshops for twelve years, and...

E-ISBN-13: 9781584658726
E-ISBN-10: 158465872X
Print-ISBN-13: 9781584655435

Page Count: 168
Publication Year: 2009

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Authorship -- Psychological aspects.
  • Authorship -- Evaluation -- Psychological aspects.
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