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

toxic feedback

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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.

Posted in Guest Post, Writing Advice.

Susan DeFreitas

An author and editor, Susan DeFreitas’s creative work has appeared in the Utne Reader, Story Magazine, and more than twenty other publications. She is the author of the novel Hot Season (Harvard Square Editions, 2016), recipient of a 2017 Gold IPPY Award, and a contributor at Litreactor.com. She holds an MFA from Pacific University and lives in Portland, Oregon, where she serves as a developmental editor with Indigo Editing & Publications.

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

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Nancy
Thank you for this interesting article. I have been in several writing groups over the years and while I haven’t encountered every scenario you describe, I have experienced some of them. I think if you’re showing your work to any number of people, it’s almost impossible to avoid, and the hard part is knowing which advice to trust and which advice to toss. Sometimes it’s obvious, other times it’s harder – especially when it comes from someone you know is a good writer themselves. However, if someone isn’t interested (and therefore doesn’t read) your genre, their feedback can be skewed… Read more »
Philippa Rees
Valuable article. The toxic is relatively easily identified, but the in depth prejudices that do skew judgement are much more difficult. The motivated by jealousy, or disinclination for the subject ( as outlined above) are seldom recognised by the critic themselves. I do find a hazard in offering work to anybody, not because their observations might sting ( recent ones for me have but were recognised as stemming from genuine hope to help improve) but one has to balance their value against one’s own state of confidence. If, at a low ebb, even ‘helpful’ feels like a lash. One alternative… Read more »
Gabriella West

Very well-crafted piece. The third-to-last paragraph is wonderful.

John Grabowski

This reminds me of when I was trying to bust into advertising as a copywriter. While I got a little good feedback, most of it was awful and showed only the biases of the people reviewing my portfolio. I was hungry for any feedback then, but I now realize that listening to most of these people set me back by several years. I now take most feedback with a grain of salt.

Melanie Bishop

Great job, Susan. About to share on FB. (Is there a word missing toward the end? Should it be …that makes you who you are as a writer?) Thanks for writing this!

Jane Friedman

Oops – I’ve fixed!

C.L.

Brava!

joyce cresswell

Great commentary, Susan. Thank you!

Lyn Alexander

#1 Failure to Understand my intent. I wrote my novel as a hero’journey. Some lady idiot at Kirkus reviewed it as a family saga (very far from my obvious intent) who complained that I didn’t show the stories of what happened to the soldier’s family during the war. It was not their story !!!
I paid half my monthly retirement pension for that Kirkus review. Trashed it.

Tim Haag

Geez, Susan. So timely, in my case, as I just received feedback [not yet opened] from an editor–the first time I’ve ever formally done so with my own fiction. And just two days ago I dropped a writing class, as while they are, I’m sure, competent writers and good people, I wasn’t convinced they would ‘get’ my children’s fiction. Plus, when the term ‘aboutness’ of a piece of writing was bandied about during week 2 or 3, I pretty much figured it might be time to move on.
Thanks for your insights.

Roger Marchant

Good job most successful commercial writers (relax, it’s not an evil term) either never experience or ignore the Sylvia Plath effect. Ignore Hemingway, he topped himself for other reasons.

samthorne
Really good article; I have to be aware of people trying to ram my novel into a genre structure. I’m writing something a little awkward; it’s romantic (two people trying to get beyond the honeymoon stage in a loving relationship fraught with difficulties), and has a lot of action set in the East end of gang London, but it’s evidently not a romance because it doesn’t feature two people eventually getting it together. I’m trying to write the story as it is, but am getting quite a lot of advice about checking out various trope guidelines. I don’t want to,… Read more »
Chris
“only that you should not share your work with people who are unaware of their own biases” sounds like an impossible task. Who can possibly know what they are blind to? Readers are equally imperfect to writers. Perhaps we should consider that advice from readers might be articulated poorly because they don’t exactly why they like or don’t like something. I don’t have a problem with it because your actual readers are the same way, right? Numbers 3 and 4 seem to be truly toxic to me. The others can be chalked up to humans being humans. Just because you… Read more »
Jane Friedman

It may be that some writers (or editors or readers) are not aware of their biases, just as some people are not self-aware humans and can’t see or understand their own strengths and weaknesses. But that doesn’t mean self-aware people don’t exist. 🙂

Deana Duvall

Thank you, Susan! This was a great read! I had an editor who was much younger than me, and she took issue with my flashbacks to the 80s. She said that she didn’t live in the 80s, but even she knew that what I was expressing was common knowledge and it made my character seem unrealistic because she didn’t know about it. I tried to tell her that it is only ‘common knowledge’ now because of the internet.

Janice Seagraves

I totally agree. I’ve had some toxic critiques and quit two critique groups because of them. Not to point fingers, but the worst are from literary writers. And I write category romance.

Emily
Thank you for this. I’ve been a professional writer for 20 years so I must be doing something right. I’m of the opinion that the majority of feedback is pretty useless, however, it’s worth seeking out because there’s that small percentage that really CAN help you. The trick is being able to slough off the unhelpful while still being open to the helpful, and being able to tell the difference. That’s not easy and not everyone can do it. I’ve been getting feedback for, like I said, 20 years, and it’s even gotten difficult for me to tell the difference.… Read more »
Dawn Turner
Unfortunately, it’s not just critique partners and editors to watch. Contest judges can be toxic, too. In the worst case I ran into to date, heeding a judge’s recommendations would’ve taken a character who was a loving mother caught in a difficult situation and trying to protect her children and turned her into a selfish, screaming harpy with no regard for her children’s emotional or psychological well-being. I was horrified! Needless to say, that one was so obvious I KNEW to avoid heeding the advice given. I even had a couple of others look at it to see if I… Read more »
Maria D\'Marco
I may have stones thrown at me, but by the first third of your article, I felt I needed to throw cold water on my computer to quench the flames. :o) But I believe this only shows how long we can carry the sting of toxic feedback. As a writer and a developmental editor, I have encountered some of these obstacles to progress first-hand, as well as second-hand, when an author I’m working with comes limping in with battered manuscript in tow. My job, in the latter instance, is to not only give balanced, creative feedback, but to also help… Read more »
Michael LaRocca

In my first novel, the main character was a male cop, his new partner was a female cop, and nothing romantic happened. I kept hearing that romance is what readers expect, which struck me as the very best reason to avoid it. But when the chorus finally got to me, I gave my main character AIDS. No romance. Best thing that ever happened to that novel.

Shellnut

I believe, sir, that you are my hero. Since I’m not really a fan of romance because it is EVERYWHERE in entertainment, I find myself going through stories and thinking “please don’t become a relationship” when a male and female are “on screen” together, and when it inevitably happens I tend to roll my eyes.

Surtsey
Ms Defreitas – I hear you. I feel you. I agree 100%. I write in a certain way, almost to the extent that even a romance has a thriller quality. I once removed a book from a peer review site due to ‘toxic’ or misinformed feedback. A number of people provided similar comments. They used the old adage “If several people are telling you the same thing – they are right.” I must state before I have my moan – I am intrigued by the mechanics of story-telling. 1) In the opening I missed an opportunity to set the scene… Read more »
Wendy Beckman
Great piece, Susan! I put my first (and still unpublished) novel away for three years, because it had been so over-workshopped it was no longer my work. One graduate fiction instructor kept advising me to create some lesbian sex scenes in it. There are no sex scenes in it at all, lesbian or otherwise, as that is not pertinent to the point, nor are they typical in my genre. My book is mainstream fiction, not literary. I, too, am a freelance editor and run a monthly workshop, and I have published eight works of nonfiction. When I edit other people’s… Read more »
Jevenna Willow
Perfect article. As the author of now 40 novels…I’ve dealt with each of these problems by one or another of these ‘experts’. It finally came down to I either listen to their mal-intent, of which it was in most cases, perhaps due to that all-encompassing jealousy aspect of a multi-published author using un-published critique partners, or just flat out incompetence by a ‘newbie’ editor. I still, to this day, consider five of my first books ruined by toxic feedback. I now trust my gut, and it has kept me going strong, even with the high levels of toxic slurry I’ve… Read more »
Hans

Tnx so much!
Trying to write fantasy, but the tight critiquers group told me afterwards, that they never read a Potter book or seen a Potter movie.
Their Remarks were highly demotivating. They were unpleasantly surprised that I got JKR’s blessing

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[…] When it comes time to edit, Janice Hardy has advice on cutting down word count, Elaine Viets has fun with misplaced clauses, and Susan DeFreitas shows how to spot toxic feedback. […]

Tyrean A Martinson

This is wonderful! Thank you! Although we don’t want to ignore constructive critique, it’s definitely good to recognize that some CPs and editors have a different view or a toxic approach (hitting on others instead of doing the actual work). It’s good to listen to others and listen to our own instincts.

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[…] found this meditation tool in an email from Jane Friedman. I tried it and LOVED it. I think you will too. Short, sweet, and to the point! […]

Ani
Wonderful post, Susan. So helpful to have you point out the specific kinds of feedback (with great examples) that can derail a writer, and to hear you urge staying true to one’s inner compass. One example from my own experience: An editor I hired to give me feedback on my (now published) historical novel would have had me cut several scenes that “slowed the story,” by leading readers into a contemplative, even meditative experience. My inner sense was not to make those particular cuts based on my vision for the book and the readers to whom this novel about a… Read more »
Steve Mathisen

Great stuff. Very helpful.

MSD

Thanks for this wonderful article, listing all the baggage and blind spots advisers (amateur as well as professional) get caught up. The next time I’m in the advising/critiquing role, I’ll remember that ‘honour the writer’s intent’ is the key to doing no substantial harm.

T. K. Marnell
I think in essence, every reader in the world has an idea of one “perfect story,” and naturally they want to help writers by turning every story into that one. Some, like seasoned editors, are aware that there are different stories for different audiences, and they give professional feedback accordingly. But many others will try to jam every story into the mold of what they think a story is “supposed to be,” even if it clearly doesn’t fit. People have tried to convince me to turn my fluffy comedies into poetic literary pieces, to turn my quiet literary pieces into… Read more »
Erica
Wow, thank you for this article! It validates some of the things I lamented in a recent blog post about finding beta readers who could actually give useful feedback. The performing arts are central to my novels, and many scenes take place during rehearsals, at the ballet studio, etc. One of my beta readers casually stated in her comments that she skimmed all of these sections since ballet isn’t an interest of hers, and then went on to critique my character development – despite the fact that most of her concerns would have been addressed if she’d actually read every… Read more »
Nicola Smith

Thank you Jane, great article. I was reading it from the point of view of how to give better feedback myself. I just beta read for someone and struggled with it. In fact, I ended up recusing myself eventually because we had a major difference of opinion (in the book). I’ve had trouble before too when the writing is poor quality or I’m not sure I understand the author’s intent. I was wondering if you had written anything on how to approach providing feedback? What would constitute quality feedback?

Nicola Smith

Sorry, thank you Jane and Susan for the article 🙂

Jane Friedman
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[…] Friedman is another author who posts excellent advice on writing. This one here about How to Spot Toxic Feedback is something we all should read and […]

JayCee
Sometimes feedback can be toxic. I have run into only one of the issues discussed in the article. However, sometimes how we receive feedback can be toxic as well. While reading, I could not help but think that a writer should ask herself whether the issue is on her shoulders. Surely her beta readers, reviewers, editors, critique group, and teachers cannot all be against her. As a writer, you need to take in advice, both good and bad, and then make a decision on the direction your manuscript should take. I think it’s helpful to point out when advice doesn’t… Read more »
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[…] of the most popular guest posts at my site this year is How to Spot Toxic Feedback, which discusses signs that the writing advice you’re receiving may do more harm than […]

Kristina Adams
Thanks for the great article, Susan! You’re so right. The point you made about how less-experienced writers and editors insist on books fitting into a particular structure reminded me of several people I know. I never thought of them as rookies before, but now you’ve got me thinking. I also write poetry and I believe you should know the rules of poetry before you break them. Why should fiction writing be any different? It’s important to know how a story goes together, but it’s also important to remember that with creative work, there is no definitive right or wrong way… Read more »
Catherine M Wilson

Always fun to see the lines critics complained about underlined by my readers.

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[…] Keep learning always, and trust your own instincts when it comes to feedback and critique.  Jane Friedman wrote a good article on this topic–How to Spot Toxic Feedback. […]

Shirley Willis

It’s immediately apparent that you are an experienced editor, and a good one of your own work at that. After you spoke in Prescott Valley, Arizonaa a few months ago, I bough your book and read it cover to cover. Great job. Glad you followed your own good advice. Your talk also set a fire under me to get mine published, Naked Teaching: A Love Story, through a small press. thank you for this article, your book and your talk. You are a true inspiration!

Thomas Edmund

My rule of thumb when giving feedback is to remember that a critique is to empower a writer to improve their work. Whether its a thorough ‘destructive’ read or a simply impression, often an unthoughtful critic gets lost in their own need to prove their own worth, or even just maintain their own sense of being a good writer I suppose. If we’re not aiming to help a writer improve what the point?

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