Jane Friedman

How to Spot Toxic Feedback: 7 Signs That the Writing Advice You’re Getting May Do More Harm Than Good

Photo credit: lovelihood via Visual Hunt / CC BY-SA

Today’s guest post is by editor and author Susan DeFreitas (@manzanitafire), whose debut novel, Hot Season, won the 2017 Gold IPPY Award for Best Fiction of the Mountain-West.

The path to publication with your debut novel is seldom straightforward, but in my case, it was especially fraught—in part because I received a lot of feedback that wasn’t all that helpful, from people who didn’t understand what I was trying to achieve.

If you suspect you’ve been subject to this sort of feedback, first let me say this: you are not crazy, and the people who have given you this advice are not necessarily malicious.

But if you recognize the following characteristics in the critiques offered to you by peers, mentors, editors, or book coaches, it may not just be inept—it may, in fact, be toxic.

1. Failure to Understand Your Intent

My debut novel is about three college roommates, all of whom are involved in the fight to save a local river, and all of whom are seduced by the same young man, who may or may not be an undercover agent.

Based in part on real events, Hot Season tackles themes like drought, wildfire, and water in the West, and as such, it is an inherently political book.

But some of my peers in graduate school seemed to consider these themes a big risk—one that might keep me from getting published. One actually wondered aloud if political fiction could be good.

These people did not read the sort of books I read, so they lacked a sense of the sort of authors I was in conversation with—authors like Barbara Kingsolver, Lydia Millett, and Ed Abbey. Simply put, these people were not the right readers for my book.

I’ve seen the same thing in critique groups: A literary writer unfamiliar with the conventions of genre will advocate for geeky details to be cut. A reader who enjoys thrillers will encourage the author to play up a cloak-and-dagger angle, when what that author intended was something more along the lines of existential dread.

This is not to say you should only share your work with people who share your tastes—only that you should not share your work with people who are unaware of their own biases.

2. Projection of Personal Issues

Have a critique-group partner who’s always advocating for the first-person POV? Chances are, he struggles with the third person.

Notice that someone in your workshop always wants to know more about a secondary character? You may have noticed that those sorts of characters in her work are often more interesting than her protagonists.

Even mentors are not immune. In grad school, one of my instructors questioned whether a section of my novel set in Portland, Oregon, should be moved to another city. I mean, punks in Portland—so cliché! Why not Cincinnati?

Never mind the fact that I have never been to Cincinnati. Or that—see above—my novel is based on real events, which did not occur there.

In this case, I have to assume that this mentor, as an author, sometimes selects settings for her stories at random, based on ideas she has about them—ideas that she has, in the past, found it useful to interrogate.

Which is fine, but again, that’s not my issue, nor did her feedback honor the intent of my work.

3. Inappropriately Personal Feedback

In the creative writing workshop, we critique the work, not the author. But unhealthy personal dynamics can lead to feedback that is useless at best and toxic at worst.

I’m talking about the couple that is ostensibly critiquing either other’s work but is, in reality, having a very public argument—the member of the workshop who’s constantly deriding your work as derivative, though this isn’t an opinion that seems to be shared by anyone else.

One particularly pernicious example, to my mind, occurs when a male workshop mentor uses his feedback to pursue a female student—or to psychoanalyze her. (I’m stating this in gendered terms because I have never seen its reverse, though no doubt that occurs as well.)

4. Unprofessional Tone

One freelance editor I hired used multiple exclamation points to let me know that my story was boring and my characters dumb (he referred to one as a “complete airhead”). He also stated that my novel would have to abandon its multiple points of view in favor of that of a single character (apparently, the only one he could stand).

This man is a professional instructor at the graduate level, in addition to being a professional editor. Honestly, I have no idea how he’s still employed.

This is not to say that my plot or my characters didn’t need work (that was why I had hired an editor). But when I sent him my book, I was not consenting to have it disparaged or degraded, and when you share your work, neither should you—no matter how many publishing credits a mentor or publishing professional may have to his name.

With an early draft, more often than not, the truth hurts. But there’s absolutely no reason it can’t be related in a professional and courteous manner.

5. By the Book

The next editor I worked with took a different approach. In response to the next draft of my book, she wrote, “It would be helpful to draw a simple outline: Conflict; Plot point 1; Plot point 2; Plot point 3; Resolution of initial conflict.”

Wow, this whole writing thing was so much easier than I had imagined! (Now, why was I still paying off those student loans?)

Alexander Pope said “a little learning is a dangerous thing,” and the study of creative writing is no exception. Study screenwriting and you’ll look at every novel through the lens of the three-act structure; get turned on to The Hero’s Journey and you’ll see every story as a descent to subconscious depths; figure out how broadly applicable Freitag’s Pyramid is, and for a while, you’ll think you’ve got this thing called fiction figured.

Years later, as a freelance editor myself, I see this editor for what she was, despite her position with a respected agency: a rookie.

Because as any experienced editor knows, the novel is far too interesting an art form to completely conform to any one system (especially one that’s taught in freshman comp).

6. Not Thinking It Through

To her credit, the same editor pointed out that the resolution of my novel’s main conflict came too early, which was something I’d suspected. But her suggested fix? Just switch the chapters around. Like that wouldn’t pose any problems for the story whatsoever.

The point of hiring an editor or book coach is not just to have someone tell you your manuscript is a mess—it’s to have someone to help you think through the fixes and come up with one (or more) that’s viable. This entails thinking through the multitude of ripple effects that any major change would entail and squaring them with the perceived intent of the book.

Which (as the book coach Lisa Cron points out) is hard work, on a purely cognitive level. But anyone who cannot do it has no business offering professional developmental feedback.

7. Conflating the Problem with the Fix

The bestselling fantasy author Neil Gaiman once said, “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”

As a freelance editor (with, at this point, more than five years of experience under my belt), I’d like to think that my recommended fixes are right more often than not. But as an author, I know that the problems and the fixes can’t be so conflated in my feedback that my client (or critique-group partner) can’t tell one from the other.

Ultimately, only the author can know what’s right for her work.

Holding true to my own internal compass is what led me to persevere with my novel in the face of the toxic feedback I received—to hold true to a vision that, ultimately, my readers embraced.

Consider: If I had taken out the descriptions of the high-desert landscape that bored fans of domestic dramas, would I have won an award for Best Fiction of the Mountain-West? If I had scaled back the political themes in my work, would readers have compared my work to that of Barbara Kingsolver and Margaret Atwood?

If I had written a traditional novel, with one central point of view—rather than the POVs of multiple female characters—would that novel have been hailed for its complexity as a work of feminist fiction?

Take your knocks as a writer, but don’t lose sight of your vision. Keep writing for the person who loves what you love, who sees what you see, feels what you feel. Keep reaching for the specificity that makes you who you are as an author, even as you improve your craft.

Because, ultimately, that’s what will distinguish you in an overcrowded market.

Moreover, remember that you’re on an extraordinary journey, of a very personal type. You owe it to yourself (and to your work) to find companions who are worthy of your trust.