How Writers Revise: Joni B. Cole and Toxic Feedback

Joni B. Cole Toxic Feedback

How Writers Revise: Joni B. Cole and Toxic Feedback

This post is part of the monthly How Writers Revise series, where I talk with successful authors about their editing and revision processes, as well as the challenges and setbacks they’ve faced in their careers and how they overcame them. If you’d like to receive these and my weekly writing craft posts in your in-box you can sign up here.

“Feedback is a part of every aspect of life, including on the domestic front, how you talk to your partner or your kids. And there are many right ways—but there are so many wrong ways.” –Joni B. Cole

Author, educator, and editor Joni B. Cole knows a little something about feedback—the good and bad kind. When she was a fledgling writer in a graduate program, one of her professors wrote on a short story she had worked and reworked extensively simply, “It’s all wrong.”

It gutted her—as many writers can understand.

But it also set the stage for the rest of Joni’s writing career, and her own teaching. “One of my proudest moments is that I overcame that,” she says. “That experience motivated me to author books that, I hope, provide a more positive and productive approach to writing and the creative process; and it totally informed my entire paradigm for teaching and providing feedback. Everything that professor did, I do the opposite—not just in reaction, but because I saw the brutality and how it excluded so many aspiring and worthy writers.”

Joni parlayed that self-created confidence into a successful and varied literary career. Her writing has been nominated for both a USA Fellowship Award and the Pushcart Prize. She’s published a collection of essays, Another Bad Dog Book, as well as curated and edited an acclaimed series of “day diaries” called This Day, written by hundreds of women across America and from all walks of life about a single day in their lives. Joni’s brand-new collection of essays, Party Like It’s 2044, is forthcoming this September, and is described in an early review as, “vibrant, provocative, funny and flavorful,” by author Joan Frank, a reviewer of literary nonfiction for The Washington Post and Boston Globe

She’s a contributor to sites like Jane Friedman and The Writer magazine, a creative consultant for companies and nonprofits, and a guest lecturer and presenter at organizations and conferences across the country. She regularly teaches writing at Dartmouth College and a variety of nonprofits, and is the founder of the Writers Center of White River Junction in Vermont, where she teaches “serious writers and nervous beginners.”

How Joni Busts the Myths of Writing Dogma

Joni has also written two books for writers on craft, Good Naked: How to Write More, Write Better, and Be Happier and her latest, the recently rereleased Toxic Feedback.

And she feels strongly about writers, writing, and the way writing is taught. Really, really strongly.

  • For instance, on the fairly ubiquitous idea of the “shitty first draft”: “I think that mentality is nothing but destructive. There is no shitty first draft—there is no shitty draft. It’s just a draft…. Why call the names when, thank God, it’s words on a page?”
  • On the oft-given advice that writers fully plan out their stories before they write them: “I think we’re often sold this bill of goods that there is one process, and the one that gets the most airtime is you start with an outline,” she says. “It’s third grade all over again.… Because people think they need to know where to start or what’s going to come next, that’s when the manuscripts end up in the drawer, or boredom sets in… For so many people who are not the more linear types, very often the scenes will reveal a much more organic plot than what your left brain might have been thinking about.”

“There is nothing productive about brutality, nothing. Many writers are good at overcoming tough feedback. But it actually squanders a way to give more thoughtful and more useful feedback.”

–Joni B. Cole

Read more: “Finding the ‘Right’ Way to Write

  • And of course on “brutally honest” feedback: “There is nothing productive about brutality, nothing. Many writers are good at overcoming tough feedback. But it actually squanders a way to give more thoughtful and more useful feedback.”

What Makes for “Toxic Feedback”?

Joni and I share a passion for helping writers create their stories in a productive, creative, organic way, and much of our conversation—which I encourage you to check in full on my YouTube channel here—dips into some of the most effective ways to achieve that, with great mutual word-nerd enthusiasm.

Her approach to feedback involves starting with an author’s strengths—building up from what works well and is solid, even in her own writing. “Almost by default, the more [authors] amplify what has the seed of promise, or is the strongest part of it, the more by some strange way some of the problems drift away a little bit,” she says.

A constructive attitude toward giving feedback matters—Joni cites the power of a positive approach, specificity, and giving considered, thoughtful feedback in helping authors attain the best version of their vision on the page. And it’s important to pay attention to “how much the writer can hear in that moment,” she says. Even the most insightful feedback may be less useful to an author if they feel overwhelmed.

But perhaps what she feels is the most important aspect of learning to give positive, actionable, constructive feedback to other writers on their work is how powerfully it can improve your skills in your own writing—a topic I have long shared Joni’s passion for. “When you give thoughtful feedback as writers, oh, my gosh, it teaches you so much. I think giving feedback almost serves your own writing more than getting feedback on your manuscripts.”

And the more experience a writer gets with receiving and assessing feedback, the better they get at culling through it for what parts resonate and which don’t serve the story they’re trying to tell—and are able to filter out the kind of toxic feedback Joni deplores and talks about in her latest book by the same name, as well as sharing real-life stories from published authors about their own toxic-feedback experiences.

Be Your Own Advocate as a Writer

And that factors into another topic Joni is passionate about: writers learning to advocate for themselves. When two of her publishers went out of business still holding rights to her books, Joni realized that they could easily be tied up in the dissolution of the companies and actively went to bat to retrieve them—which allowed her to reissue the books under her own aegis, rather than lose them forever. “You have to be the assertive one,” she says. “If I hadn’t spoken up…there’d be no paperwork trail for me having the rights back.”

In a recent, hilarious post for Jane Friedman, Joni related another instance of advocating for herself, when the original cover her publisher proposed for Good Naked, her humorous, practical book on writing craft, featured a moody black-and-white image of a naked woman who “looked like she was getting busy with herself,” she recalls with a laugh.

Everyone at her publishing house—including her own editor—was hesitant to speak up about the off-base, offensive cover design, but Joni knew the cover would mislead potential readers and hamper the book’s success. “I had to really fight this on my own,” she recalls. “We can be very collaborative, we have to really listen, we have to respect [publishers’] expertise in the publishing realm, but my God, we don’t have the take something that is just so wrong for our book.”

The Invaluable Process of Revision

And of course, what happens when you get two editors together? You rhapsodize about the value of revision. Joni’s easy, fluid, conversational stories and essays can take upward of thirty or forty drafts to achieve, she says, and she feels revision is “where the miracle of writing happens.”

You can hear much more on Joni’s invaluable advice and insights for writers, gleaned from her long and successful career as an author and educator, in our interview on my YouTube channel here. I also asked her to expand more on the specifics of her own editing and revision process, so here’s the unusual pleasure of seeing how the editor edits her own work.


How Joni B. Cole Revises

As a teacher, every time I review a manuscript my goal is to meet every draft where it is at, and help the writer figure out how to revise productively to achieve the next draft. But I’ve never really stepped back and looked at my own process for revision—How do I revise? Just being invited to think about this question has already given me insights. So thank you!

One of the things I do know about my revision process is that it usually starts with a sense of overwhelm. What am I going to do with this…this accumulation of experiences, feelings, tangents, what-ifs, and spontaneous observations that are the stuff of my first drafts?

We all know writers are often put into one of two categories: pantsers or plotters. I don’t really identify as either, maybe because both methods seem to suggest the writer imposes some sense of linearity on the story line from the get-go, even if they are making it up on the fly. But my process for creating a first draft feels more like grocery shopping when I’m hungry. I might have a recipe in mind, but before long my cart is loaded with random products—horseradish, monk fruit sugar, anchovy paste—that all appealed in the moment.

Hence, overwhelm.

What helps is to first get my head in the right place before confronting those early drafts. I remind myself that I don’t need to “fix” anything because fixing something so amorphous feels premature. I don’t even think in terms of revision, but rather reconstitution. I typically start by deconstructing the draft and moving around whatever parts feel viable. That scene on page four—that’s the most engaging moment on these pages; maybe I’ll try that as my opening. Oh, that reflection at the bottom of page two—I’ll move those two paragraphs to the end. By reconstituting, I begin to discern the hint of a frame and flow for the piece.

In early drafts, I also like trawling for the emotional “hotspots” on the pages—moments that demand scenic development. (The adage “show emotion; tell information” greatly serves me at this stage of development/revision.) Amplifying or refining those hot spots is a productive way to revisit my work because I enjoy writing scenes and, in doing so, it helps me uncover the significance of those moments. Once my key scenes are clear, I also am clearer on how to structure the plot of my essay.  

As an essayist, I know it may sound peculiar to be approaching revision by focusing on scenes or thinking in terms of plot. But just as scenes are the lifeblood of fiction, they also provide the hook and the heft of my personal essays. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, my essays start and end in scene, and include lots of scenic “punctuation” interwoven in the exposition. And while the plots of my essays typically aren’t the most compelling components, without one I don’t have an organizing structure to then feed in backstory and relevant exposition. 

Back to overwhelm. Again and again, I remind myself to have faith in the writing and revision process. I may sit down at my desk empty-headed but, once I dive in, that’s when the neurons start firing; that’s when I realize the anchovy paste I had mindlessly tossed into my cart actually provides the perfect umami for what would have been a predictable or ho-hum dish.

The later stages of revision are where I rack up the drafts. I love sharpening, tightening, and wordsmithing. I revisit every line, thinking in terms of “swap-ins.” Is there a more selective action or detail I could use to better reveal a character? Is my dialogue stilted or pithy? Are my verbs pulling their weight? Goodbye, filter verbs, clichés, needless modifiers, and weird word packages like I thought to myself. (Who else would I think to?)

Even though my essays are almost always about serious subjects, often they are described as humorous, so I also use the backend of the revision process to finesse the funny. For me, those last dozen drafts are where the magic happens; where what might simply be a good anecdote is elevated to a personal essay with a universal thematic resonance. I try my hardest to defy the notion that “there are no words” by finding just the right ones.  

Here, I would like to add one more reality about how I revise, which is that the whole process would be much slower, murkier, and far less enjoyable if I didn’t get feedback along the way. Writing is a solitary act but there is no way in hell I’m going it alone.  

5 Comments. Leave new

  • Many thanks to you and to Ms. Cole for sharing this. Boy, do I feel strongly about this topic!

    I went to grad school in design among aspiring professionals, some with real talent. Most were developing their own personal standards and they were not gentle, (or sometimes even constructive) with feedback. I learned a lot from my emotional scars. Here’s my two cents’ worth about feedback.

    First, I’m in complete agreement with Ms. Cole about brutality. It never helped anyone. It’s judgment, not feedback.
    Feedback, in the context I believe Ms. Cole is (and I am) using the term, should be an attempt to help the person receiving the feedback. Assessment and literary or artistic criticism have completely different objectives from those of feedback. They are supposed to judge, and at their best, they make their standards clear.

    The feedback I’m speaking of is only helpful when it addresses what the author, artist, or whomever, is trying to do. Brutal feedback is about the giver, not the receiver. (I’ll leave where I think the brutality comes from for another, less constructive rant.)

    As the receiver of feedback, what I need to know is, first, that the giver of feedback understands the intent of the writing or design or whatever. Next, I need to know how it struck them, and their reaction to it. If they liked it, great. If they didn’t, that’s their business. What I need to know is: what they felt/thought and why, what impact that had on them, and, if it’s appropriate, what might be better, how, and why.

    Also, as the receiver of feedback, I’m in charge. Givers of feedback should prepare to be asked for more explanation, and how, in their opinion, the work might be improved. (That’s not the same as what I should do!)

    Here are some specifications I offer for feedback. Effective feedback is:

    SPECIFIC, NOT VAGUE

    The opening seemed strong to me.

    In the opening paragraph, when the protagonist ……., I felt ……,

    Not: The opening was weak/strong/OK.

    DESCRIPTIVE, NOT JUDGEMENTAL

    I felt that I got a lot out of this. It engaged me.
    What I read, felt, envisioned was……,

    Not: It was……, You should not……!

    FOCUSED ON THE FUTURE, NOT THE PAST

    I think this has the makings of a strong story
    What you might want to consider adding, deleting, changing is……,

    Not: What you should have done was……

    BALANCED, NOT SKEWED TO POSITIVE OR NEGATIVE

    What I thought was effective was…,

    What you might consider is……

    MATCHED TO THE RECEPTIVITY OF THE RECEIVER, NOT OVERWHELMING

    I think that voice is one of its strengths,
    Is this a good time to talk about it.……?

    Not: …and another thing,……(Help is only helpful to the extent it’s wanted.)

    These descriptions are so simplified, and there’s a lot more, but they’ve been a good starting point for me and those I have worked with. I hope that it’s helpful to you.

    Reply
    • These are great tips, Bob–and spot-on. Feedback is useful only insofar as it’s constructive to the author–and that means sharing how effective a story is to you, as the reader, and why, and where–not your opinions or how to change it.

      I actually offer a template for a beta-reader/critique partner questionnaire on my website (a free downloadable on the Editing Toolbox page) to help garner the kind of feedback from people that will be most useful and actionable for you as the author, and it’s designed with many of your great guidelines in mind.

      Thanks for sharing these specific insights–I imagine many writers may find them helpful. There’s such value in insightful, skillful feedback–and so much potential damage caused by poorly executed feedback.

      Reply
    • Joni B Cole
      July 7, 2023 12:29 am

      Bob, thank you for your thoughtful insights! If you ever read my book Toxic Feedback (I agree feedback is difficult to simplify, hence a book) I would love to have a more in-depth discussion about the topic. It’s so important.

      Reply
  • Maryann Kovalski
    July 6, 2023 8:34 pm

    A brutal response is a lazy response. It’s akin to a moody, inarticulate child who feels lousy and doesn’t know why but just lashes out.

    I always want totally (and I mean totally) honest responses. But that does not mean rude or churlish. If a reader hates one of my characters, I want to know. I cannot take offence if it’s phrased something like:

    “Minnie came across, to me anyway, as unlikeable (list a couple of examples). But unlikeable characters can be fascinating. They make a reader turn pages, longing to find out what went wrong. Olive Kitteridge comes to mind. Is a dark character your intention?”

    The best, most intelligent reader must realize that art is a subjective business. Unvarnished honesty with a dose of humility is what I long for in my responders.

    Reply
    • I am about as passionate as you sound about this, Maryann. Bad critique is often more related to the critiquer’s ego or their own needs or self-image, rather than what it should be: a mirror held up to reflect back to the author what’s on the page and how effective the reader found it. It should be utterly frank, as you say, but you can be honest and still take a positive approach and offer constructive and actionable input. Giving skilled feedback is a bit of an art, though, and one we don’t often teach–so I especially welcome Joni’s book. Thanks for weighing in.

      Reply

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