Therese here. Please welcome today’s guest, Joni B. Cole. A 2011 Pushcart Prize nominee, Joni is a popular speaker at writing conferences across the country, has been interviewed on national television shows including CNN, and contributes regularly to The Writer magazine. Just yesterday marked the release day for her latest book, Another Bad Dog Book: Tales of Life, Love, and Neurotic Human Behavior. Said New York Journal of Books of Joni’s collection of essays:
Joni Cole’s voice may be brutal, but readers, drawn to turn to the next page, will be rewarded: She is funny and so is her gutsy book.
She’s also the author of Toxic Feedback: Helping Writers Survive and Thrive, which is what we’re focused on today. Honestly, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I first opened Joni’s book; we hear a lot about how to be a good critique partner, how to avoid bad critique partners, and the dangers and joys of critique in general. I was so glad to see Joni tackle fresh topics, like processing feedback, and provide stories of authors who’d learned something valuable through critique (Jennifer Crusie, Jodi Picoult, Gregory Maguire, more). Toxic Feedback is worth a place in your home library if you’re confused by critique, if you feel you’re not getting what you should from critique, or if you’re flummoxed as to why you’re not clicking with your critique group.
Maybe I would’ve been less skeptical if I’d read Joni’s reviews beforehand:
Strongly recommended. – Library Journal
I can’t imagine a better guide to [writing’s] rewards and perils than this fine book. – American Book Review.
I’m thrilled Joni has given me permission to reprint a section of her book, this on the importance of specificity in critique. Enjoy!
Can You Please Be More Specific!
Beth Rider is an assistant professor of pediatrics and co-director of the Communication Skills Teaching Program at Harvard Medical School. Part of Beth’s job is to provide feedback workshops for faculty and medical students who seem to have no issues with peering into open chest cavities or sewing up gaping wounds, but often react squeamishly to the idea of giving each other feedback.
Beth told me a story from her own student days as a pediatric resident treating inpatients at a Boston hospital. When the time came for her formal evaluation by the attending physician, the two met at the elevator en route to the sixth floor. “You’re doing a great job,” Beth’s boss told her on the ride up. She looked forward to their conference and hearing more. Then the elevator doors opened and he took off. End of evaluation. “It was great I got my A,” Beth said, “but how did I get it? What did I do right?”
In her workshops for the medical school faculty, Beth emphasizes that good feedback is more than a grade or an evaluation. Feedback should be descriptive. The teacher should include examples that illuminate what the medical students are doing right or wrong so that they can improve performance. For instance, instead of calling an intern “lazy,” which is a criticism of the student, the more useful feedback would be to direct the criticism to the behavior—“In your last workups, I noticed you took shortcuts that saved time and energy, but caused you to miss the giant growth on the patient’s forehead.” Now that is specific feedback the student can act on.
Beth adds that the same principles of good feedback apply to the four-year-olds she sees in her practice. Saying to young Damian, “I don’t like your behavior,” is certainly better than telling the child he is possessed. But it is not as effective as giving him a specific example of what he is doing wrong so that he knows which behavior to change—“Damian! No squeezing your new baby brother until he turns purple.”
Medical students, four-year-olds, writers, we are all alike. When it comes to feedback, we need specifics. In the writing realm, if you are critiquing an early draft, specific feedback might focus on such bigger issues as point of view, structure, or characterization. With a more polished draft, specific feedback might hone in on scene details or the mechanics of writing. In either extreme of the drafting process, the value of specific feedback is the same. It directs the writer’s attention to potential problem areas or opportunities in the text, while offering insights into why something is working or not working for you, as a reader. Specific feedback may even go so far as to include “solutions” to the problem or concrete suggestions, which can be useful to the writer as long as you don’t present them as mandates. To avoid this, it helps to couch your suggestions in language that reminds the writer whose story it is—“You may want to think about limiting point of view to just one character because this would make me feel more emotionally vested in the story; but of course it’s completely your call.”
As a feedback provider, you might feel reluctant to offer any criticism for fear of hurting the writer’s feelings, or driving him into a funk. Writers, however, can handle specifics. It’s the generalities that bring them to their knees. “Your story didn’t work for me.” “I don’t get it.” “This isn’t my thing.” Those are the kinds of demoralizing conclusions that only serve to leave writers feeling more at a loss than usual. After all, how does a writer revise so that a reader “gets it”? In contrast, writers appreciate detailed responses to their work, which they can use to inform the choices they make during the rewriting process.
In fact, most writers are dependent on feedback providers. After prolonged exposure to their manuscripts, writers often suffer the editorial equivalent of snow blindness. The pages become reduced to a white blur too painful to look at any longer, and without some outside perspective helping to guide them toward the next draft, they can only stagger around blindly, hoping the direction they are heading with revision is the right one. With time and distance, writers may regain their vision and return to the terrain of their own manuscripts with more acuity, but it is always much safer and more expedient to have someone by their side, pointing and shouting out when necessary, “Look out for that crevasse!”
Here is an example of how you, as a feedback provider, can turn a generalization into useful, specific feedback:
“Your narrator doesn’t work for me.” (Now be more specific.)
“Your narrator doesn’t work for me because she is mean and I don’t like mean people.” (Now be even more specific.)
“Your character doesn’t work for me because she purposely ran over her husband with the car on page six, but until that point in the story she seemed genuinely to love him. So I don’t understand her motivation. I’m not convinced by this sudden personality change.”
Now that is valuable feedback alerting the writer to the fact that she omitted something crucial in the text. Enlightened by the specifics of your response, the writer will react to this feedback not with frustration, but with a sense of direction and purpose, knowing that she will spend her next writing session happily developing a scene in which her narrator discovers her husband smooching with the attractive new neighbor lady shortly before she turns him into a speed bump.
As this example shows, giving writers specific feedback requires more effort on your part as a critiquer. It is much easier to make generalized assessments—“I was so terribly bored”—than it is to figure out where the piece lost your attention, or why. Some readers fail to offer specific feedback because they are shiftless and their mothers still make their beds. Also, I suspect a few feedback providers secretly enjoy the ego boost that goes along with making autocratic judgments—“I now pronounce this story stultifying!”
Those readers aside, I think most people hesitate to give specific feedback because they lack confidence in their “legitimacy” as a feedback provider, or because they lack the vocabulary of criticism. Certainly, the more experience you have providing feedback, the easier it becomes to analyze and articulate the reasons why you think some aspect of a story needs work. “Here, Mr. Writer, the text disruptively shifts from the third-person limited omniscient point of view to an objective author. Here, the protagonist’s emotional crisis wasn’t manifested in an externalized action. Here, the lyrical prose rhythm is at odds with the tension of the scene.” Whoa! That’s good stuff, very impressive, and if you can critique in those terms, help yourself to burnt coffee in the faculty lounge.
Even if you lack the vocabulary of criticism, however, you can still provide valuable feedback, and the bonus is that your comments won’t be cloaked in any literary jargon. For example, you may not know that the traditional features of the short story form are conflict, crisis, and resolution, but you do know that you were restless while reading the story until chapter four when the upstanding main character got that phone call from his old drinking buddy, fresh out of jail. That’s specific, useful feedback. You may not know how James Joyce’s use of the term epiphany applies to literature, but you do know that you felt cheated when the mother in the story didn’t seem to be phased one bit after the brow-beaten daughter she had depended on for years finally got her own apartment six hundred miles away. That’s specific, useful feedback.
Experienced or not in the art of literary analysis, if you simply pay attention to your reactions as you read, you will be able to provide the writer with thoughtful input. What’s more, you can take comfort in the fact that your feedback doesn’t even have to be right—it just has to be sincere. It is up to the writer to weigh your opinions and observations against her own writerly instincts and intentions for the story.
One last point. Most of this chapter focuses on the need for specificity when offering critical feedback. But specificity is also important when it comes to providing positive feedback. “Good job!” “This story is perfect!” “Can I have your autograph?” Of course, secretly, that is exactly the kind of feedback all writers think they want to hear when they hand over a manuscript to a critiquer. In reality though, sweeping affirmations empower the writer only until he begins a new story. Tomorrow, faced with a blank page, with no specific understanding of how he achieved his former success, the writer will be much more inclined to see that last story as a fluke rather than as a cumulative achievement of masterful plotting, vivid characterization, powerful language, and appropriate comma placement.
What’s more, sweeping affirmations often backfire. Maybe it is the way humans are hard-wired, or because a lot of us still believe in the Evil Eye, but most people are loathe to accept compliments of a general nature. You see proof of this all the time. Tell your best friend she looks nice, and she immediately points out the stain on her blouse. Applaud your child on his beautiful painting, and he angrily rips it in half—“Couldn’t you see how the bunny’s ears don’t match.” Say to a writer, “Great story!” and she automatically thinks, Oh, you’re just saying that. This is probably the worst thing I’ve ever written.
But if you offer specifics, then people will actually believe you.
“That blue blouse really brings out the color in your eyes.”
“I love how the bunny sunning himself on the hill looks so cute.”
“Your main character’s journey through adolescence reminded me exactly of the restlessness and insecurity of my own childhood.”
Positive feedback is more convincing and easier to accept when it is specific. As pediatrician and Harvard professor Beth Rider emphasizes in her workshops, “If you want good behaviors repeated, you need to be descriptive.” Whether you are providing positive feedback to medical students, four-year-olds, or writers, you can help them continue to succeed or just feel terrific by letting them know exactly what they did right. And for that reason alone it is worth more than the time it takes to ride six floors up in an elevator.
©2011 Toxic Feedback: Helping Writers Survive and Thrive by Joni B. Cole
Readers, you can learn more about Joni and her book, Toxic Feedback, on her website, and by following her on Facebook and Twitter. You can also learn more about her by checking out her brand new book: Another Bad-Dog Book: Tales of Life, Love, and Neurotic Human Behavior (PublishingWorks). Write on!