Posted by: Kerry Gans | March 14, 2013

A Writer’s Thick Skin: Do We Need One?

There’s been a lot of talk on the Internet lately about the need to have “a thick skin” if you are going to be a writer. After all, being a writer comes with a ton of rejection and a necessary amount of critique. Nothing you write will ever be perfect, and nothing you write will be loved by everyone who reads it. These facts are part of the job description.

Kristen Lamb tells us we need a thick skin, while Rachelle Gardner makes the case that we don’t. Jody Hedlund ignores the thickness of skin altogether and talks about the unnecessary shame involved in getting feedback.

They all have good points, but I think the key to developing a so-called thick skin isn’t in strengthening your epidermis, but in changing the way we approach criticism and rejection. A thick skin simply means we can take a beating and keep on going—but have we learned anything worthwhile from the beating?

I didn’t always take criticism well. I mean, I never screamed at anyone or anything like that, but it hurt a lot when my work wasn’t up to snuff. The first time my Master’s degree advisor ripped apart my work, I was nearly in tears. I suspect that part of this reaction is that I was a very good student in school. I was used to getting all A’s. To be told that my work was not an A was rather unprecedented, and I had no coping mechanism in place.

So I learned to cope. I turned around the way I looked at the red marks splashed on the page. Instead of seeing them as glaring testaments to my worthlessness, I looked at them as a challenge: every red mark was a place I could improve my story. Once I changed my outlook from a negative (“I suck”) to a positive (“look at how much better my story can be”), the ouch factor of criticism lessened considerably.

This doesn’t mean that when I get a bleeding critique back I do a dance of joy. I get down in the dumps like everyone else. The task can seem monumental. Overwhelming. But in the end it becomes exciting, because each change is an opportunity to learn something new about our craft, and the results of the changes are instantaneous: you can actually feel the story growing stronger.

I admit that revision fits my personality. I love to learn—and honing our writing offers endless opportunities to try something new, to push ourselves higher, or to master a nuance of the craft. I am also by nature a troubleshooter: I love to fix things. When I was a video editor, I was the go-to gal when a system wasn’t working. Tracking down and fixing the problem thrilled me. The same goes for my writing. Figuring out what the problem is, and then finding the solution is an adrenaline rush.

So, back to the thick skin. Do you need one? I don’t think so. Becoming impervious brings with it the risk of becoming immune to the helpful criticism as well as the bad (and there is bad criticism out there that should simply be ignored). I think Jody hit it on the head that our task is not to grow rhino skin, but to change the way we approach criticism altogether.

What do you think? Do we need a thick skin to survive as writers or not?

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Responses

  1. It depends. When I send my work to an editor, I treat it like I’m going to the doctor. The doctor will figure out what’s wrong and prescribe medicine to fix it. Well, the editor is like a story doctor. He or she will point out the problems with my work and make recommendations to fix it. Like with a medical doctor, I have the option to accept the recommendations or not.

    Reviews are a different matter. I’ve seen some authors go to pieces over a critical review. Some reviewers are more professional than others, but I do think you need that tough skin to handle a less than positive review.

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    • So for you it’s a “consider the source” thing. Interesting. I wonder if people who advise never to read your own reviews are on to something with that.

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      • If you’re an established author, the people who advise about not reading reviews are onto to something. But if you’ve got a debut novel, negative reviews can hurt your sales, especially the first review.

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  2. Some say you can’t really control the thickness of your skin. In other words, if you feel hurt by criticism, that might be based on really deep habits and sensitivities. A better question is, “can you see past the initial pain and
    to see if the comment contains anything useful?” I think this is an acquired skill, because like you, I acquired it. I used to run away from criticism, and many years later I still sometimes turn red, and even feel compelled to refute critiques. But now, I think it through clearly, and often learn from the comment. But that doesn’t mean I’m over it. How will I feel when a book is finally published on Amazon and someone one-stars it for whatever reason. It will hurt. But it won’t stop me from charging forward. I love writing too much to stop just because of a little pain.

    Jerry

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    • Great attitude and insight, Jerry. I, too, am not sure if you can “grow” a thick skin if you don’t have one naturally. All you can do is learn to control your reaction to criticism.

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  3. I was asst. features editor at a daily newspaper and developed a thin-skin in no time! Of course, critiques or edits can still sting. But I look at it this way–most of my articles have been improved by the editors’ work. Well, except for one article that was cut exactly in half–to fit the space!

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    • I find that most of the time editors DO improve the quality of your work (although there are some who are just in the wrong business). So even though it hurts when something isn’t “perfect,” it’s also exciting to know you’re making your work better than you could have on your own.

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  4. I think it depends on how the work is critiqued. I’m in my second month of Jonathan Maberry’s short story class, and received my first critque ever. I am still standing. The critique started with the words ” I like the story!” Isn’t it enough that your story is good? The editing is all about making it much better. It’s about handing a story over to hear someone tell you what comes to their mind when they read your story. If they don’t think something makes sense, it may not make sense to other readers either. You need that information no matter how much you don’t always want to hear it. Toughen up already!

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    • You’re right, a lot of it is in the presentation of the critique. Constructive criticism is a lot easier to handle than something brutal, even if they are making the same points. But I feel like you do–this information will make the story better. Take what you need and get back to writing!

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  5. […] 5. A Writer’s Thick Skin: Do We Need One? […]

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