(This article was first published on zacharybonelli.com on December 18, 2014. It has been revised with only minor editorial changes.)
As the leader of a writing group, I’ve come to notice that the biggest apprehension people bring into their first group experience is the worry that they are not good enough to even participate. They worry that they will be wasting the time of writers who are more experienced and talented than they are.
Such a writer occupies a vulnerable moment in her development, one where she has only just barely gained the confidence to get herself the feedback that she needs in order to improve.
Toxic feedback occurs when feedback is given in such a way as to send the writer hurtling back into the safety of isolation. The only thing accomplished in such a situation is that the writer will fail to grow. Toxic feedback is a form of verbal and emotional abuse.
Some individuals will argue that such abuse is “necessary.” That in order to get better, writers need to develop a “thick skin.” Besides, future reviewers aren’t going to spare anything on the writer’s feelings. Why should feedback givers?
I’ll grant that the world is burdened with unprofessional, anti-social reviewers (and, to be fair, a good number of reviewers are professionally critical, too). But being a published author confers status and confidence, both of which blunt the pain of scathing critique. A developing writer possesses neither. Do we throw children out of planes with no training or instruction because they've expressed an interest in becoming professional, adult parachuters? No. The idea that we should intentionally abuse a weak group member in order to “toughen her up” is patently ridiculous.
Another argument from those who want to give more “traditional” feedback to developing writers, is that they believe that the only way to express their reaction to the piece is abusively. I find this claim even less comprehensible than the last. I would never argue to my boss at my software engineering job, for example, that it was necessary for me to flip over my coworker’s desk and yell at her about what shitty code she wrote, rather than ask her if she could spend some time walking me through her contributions to codebase and discuss them calmly with an open mind.
You do not have to say abusive things in order to express yourself, in any context. There is always a healthier way to structure your interactions with a person, and each writer you critique deserves at least that much respect.
Having established why one should not engage in toxic feedback, I'll move on to how to recognize it, deal with it, and make sure you don't engage in it yourself.
This the most obvious and visibly toxic feedback, when the critiquer chooses to belittle the writer directly, or when he belittles the writer indirectly by insulting her characters or illegitimizing her descriptions.
There is also a class of common criticisms that, while they could be part of healthy feedback, become abuse if the feedback giver’s ego gets involved. This involves taking a reader reaction, which could be healthily expressed as such: “These few paragraphs didn’t hold my attention” but reconstruing it to raise the critiquer’s ego at the expense of the writer’s: “These paragraphs were boring.”
Notice that the primary difference between those two statements is that the former is a statement of fact regarding the reader’s experience with the piece, whereas the latter statement carries two implicit assumptions: 1) the reader’s opinion is of more importance than anything the writer might have been trying to accomplish with the piece, and 2) the reader is superior to the writer.
Any and all feedback can be recast without ego games and abuse. When you give feedback, ask yourself whether you’re explaining your reaction or talking down to the writer from a presumed point of superiority. Check that attitude at the door when you give feedback. If you find you can’t, then do the group a favor and politely check yourself out of your writing group.
Most people aren’t nasty, hostile, and condescending. Even if a feedback giver is empathizing with a writer and describing his reactions in a non-abusive way, there are still traps that he can fall into through lack of attentiveness. These are mostly due to unconscious reactions human beings have to feedback.
One of the biggest mistakes is to start negative. Never do this. Always start with the positive elements first. It is important to have something positive to say about the piece. Very few pieces of writing in the world are devoid of merit or redeeming value.
The human emotional core will latch onto the beginning of an interaction in ways that no one can control. By starting with negative feedback, the reader’s initial negativity will infect the rest of the interaction. By starting with the positive feedback, he can make the writer more likely to take his advice seriously when he later mentions elements he thought could be improved. The writer will be much more receptive to that feedback if the critiquer starts with the good stuff, and leads into the meat of the critique later.
It also important to end a critique on a positive note. The writer should feel compelled after receiving feedback to write more. To that end, it is important to end criticism with either a summary of the positive elements, or new positive observations. But never end with a general statement, such as “this was good,” or “I liked it.”
The human brain is hardwired to believe other’s words when the statement is specific, and disbelieve them when the statement is general. Even if the critiquer really did think the piece was good, and even if he really did like it, saying so in such a brief and contrite way at the end of his feedback cannot help but come off as disingenuous. He doesn’t have to repeat everything, but he should choose something, and something very specific to comment on.
It’s natural to approach critique with the intent to criticize, to raise the writer’s awareness of the parts of the story that the critiquer felt didn’t work so well, or which worked contrary to the author’s intent. This is all part of good critiquing.
However, there is a counter-intuitive element of critique that is just as useful for raising the writer’s awareness as is expounding upon the ways in which the story misfired—a good critiquer will focus intense scrutiny on what worked well and why.
This is the perfect way to utilize the finale of a critique. Don’t just say positive things about the story for the sake of going through the motions. It is equally useful for a writer to know which elements of their writing are working well as which elements are not. This more than anything will get a writer thinking about how they can take their writerly strengths to the next level.
This ties into one of the greatest truths about human psychology: we learn much better from being praised for success than from being criticized for failure.
If you’re interested in learning more about constructive criticism, you should check out Joni Cole’s book, Toxic Feedback. You can also check out the code of conduct for the writing group I run, The Wordsmithy.