Friday, June 27, 2014

Entry # 218 - "Surviving & Thriving from Workshop Feedback"

2014 At Tinker Mountain - Hollins University
Often when I get home from a workshop and look through peer review comments on a draft, I feel overwhelmed. Having recently returned from a week at the Tinker Mountain Workshop, I am once again faced with the question of how to begin my revision process. Sometimes I spin around for weeks or months deciding where to begin and what to do.
A Beautiful Campus & A Great Group of People
Joni B. Cole, has a wonderful book on the topic: Toxic Feedback: Helping Writers Survive and Thrive (2006) that I have found useful in thinking about the revision process. One of the topics she addresses is what to do with the feedback you get from others. 
In her section, Tips for Processing Feedback, she offers these useful suggestions:

Be Open - In a workshop setting – listen thoughtfully and curb your desire to defend your work.  You may - in your heart - disagree and that’s okay, because the ultimate decisions about your work rest with you.

Resist the Urge to Explain - Remember that readers can only work with what’s on a page – so you need to know where it’s not working.

Little by Little -  “It is easy to get overwhelmed when processing feedback, especially if you try to take it all in at once.”  Cole suggests that writers sift through all the comments once then put them away and select one of those things to focus on for the next revision.  “For example: it your plot is slow and main character shallow – on your next draft move your plot forward and tackle the character issue on a next draft.”

Ignore Feedback -- until you’re ready for it“The value of feedback, and then putting it in your mental lockbox as you push forward, is that this allows your unconscious to quietly process the outside information in a way that informs your writing in sync with your instincts –without slowing you down.”

Try Out the Feedback - For example:  “If your main character isn’t likable, write a scene inside or outside the story that shows him doing something endearing. Even if you decide not to use the scene, this is a great exercise in character development. No writing is a waste of effort."

Give Yourself Time - If you can’t tell if you’re making things better or worse, Cole says, --- "STOP! Take a break. Take a walk. Start something new. Let your subconscious work on it again." You should be able to see when feedback is useful to improve your vision for the work.  If it’s not helping, wait a while and come back to it.

Cole makes a strong case that after finishing a draft and subsequent revisions writers need to find a suitable reader for the work. A suitable reader is rarely someone who loves you unconditionally, but instead, the suitable reader is someone who gets what you’re doing, and who is willing to give thoughtful, insightful impressions; someone who reads carefully and who understands the struggles writers face, but who has sufficient tact to be honest and perceptive; someone who is not inclined to be unkind.

Cole's book is a gold mine of useful insights. Processing feedback effectively means being receptive to hearing a variety of opinions, but filtering it all through your own writer's lens. 


About Jan Bowman
Winner of the 2011 Roanoke Review Fiction Award, Jan's stories have been nominated for Pushcart Prizes, Best American Short Stories, and a Pen/O’Henry award.  Glimmer Train named a recent story as Honorable Mention in the November 2012 Short Story Awards for New Writers.

A recent story was a finalist for the 2013 Broad River Review RASH Award for Fiction, another story was a 2013 finalist in the Phoebe Fiction Contest; another was a 2012 finalist in the “So To Speak” Fiction Contest.  Jan’s fiction has appeared in numerous publications including, Roanoke Review, Big Muddy, The Broadkill Review, Third Wednesday, Minimus, Buffalo Spree (97), Folio, The Potomac Review, Musings, Potato Eyes and others.   She is working on two collections of short stories while shopping for a publisher for a completed story collection, Mermaids & Other Stories.  She has nonfiction publications in Atticus Review, Trajectory and Pen-in-Hand. She writes a weekly blog of “Reflections” on the writing life and posts regular interviews with writers and publishers.   Learn more at:  (note: homepage under revision right now) so visit blog:

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