I found a great book a few months back that addresses the ever-touchy subject of how to provide (and take) writing-related feedback. “Toxic Feedback” by Joni B. Cole is a great overview to the topic, and Joni’s quirky sense of humor softens the sharpest edge of her tales of feedback gone wrong.
One of the most important things to remember about feedback, she says, is
“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 into your house while you are at work and vacuums the mattresses because someone has to protect her grandchildren from dust mites. When it comes to applying feedback, you–and only you–are the one who gets to determine what stays and what goes in your story. And that is a good thing.”
I like that she covers feedback about a wide variety of writing, from fiction and memoir to academic writing and creative non-fiction. She doesn’t presume the reader is coming from a writer’s workshop environment, or seeking feedback from his or her spouse, or waiting for a response from her agent, etc.
I often have to come at feedback from the other side of the table—as an editor, I give out far more feedback than I receive these days. And while I do believe the writer is the boss of the story, in magazine writing it’s a little more complicated than that.
For one thing, at my publication (which is an institutional magazine), I do most of the assigning and accept fewer over-the-transom or queried submissions than might be typical of other magazines. So writers start out adapting to my vision for the story, or (hopefully) collaborating with me in developing it as we go along.
I try to communicate with writers all through the research and writing process; a few have taken this as evidence that I don’t trust them to bring home the story, but most understand what I’m doing—preventing unnecessary surprise by soliciting information from them about how the story development process is going.
When the first draft comes in, I put on the macro-lenses of my editing glasses. I try to focus my feedback on the big “keystones” of the piece—angle and structure. If those are right, line editing may be able to fix a lot of the other issues with the piece. If not, and there are holes in the research that I can’t fill, I know I’ll need another draft from them.
I’ve taken to providing writers a “story edit memo” for articles needing a second draft from them. The memo is just a formalized way of providing feedback. I lead with stating to the writer what was the gist of the story I read (to see how it matches with the gist of the story they were assigned to provide me), and follow with what I thought the writer got RIGHT with the manuscript. Then, and only then, do I provide so-called negative or critical feedback.
It’s important for critical feedback to be specific. In my type of editing, this is enlightened self-interest if nothing else: I can’t tell the writer to “make it sparkle on your next draft” and expect him or her to understand that I wanted them to clean up the attribution of the quotes, use the active voice more and cut 200 words.
In “Toxic Feedback,” Joni spends several chapters looking at how to respond to toxic feedback (which she defines as “commentary that undermined [a writer’s] confidence and their writing”), including a great one recounting how several writers channeled the feelings stirred up by blistering or broadly dismissive critiques of their work to become better at their craft. I hope that I never make my writers feel blistered, but in my case, I don’t entrust a writer with lots of specific critical feedback unless I think they can take it to heart.
In other words, don’t always assume that a lot of critical feedback on a piece means your work is no good. It may be you got a lot of constructive advice because your work is so good it would be a shame not to refine it and make it the best it can be.