Friday, July 15, 2011

Developing a Thick Skin

One of the things that we writers are supposed to do, in order to deal with rejection, is to develop a “thick skin.” 

I heard this at the very beginning of my writing career, and unfortunately, I took it at face value.  I thought that somehow I could build up immunity to the pain of rejection and criticism using willpower or “mind over matter” approaches, the way it’s possible to psyche yourself into tolerating more pain at the dentist’s office.

It doesn’t work this way.

The only way I know of to develop a thick skin as a writer is simply by going through the process of dealing with criticism, over and over and over again, until each criticism is no longer a surprise.  In other words, you finally arrive at a place where you are 100% aware of how you write, how you compare to other writers, and every little choice you make during the process of crafting a story.

I’m sure some relatively new writers are reading this and that you may find the news disheartening.  But perhaps you’ll take solace in knowing that razor-sharp sting you feel each time someone criticizes your book or gives you a bad review is perfectly normal.  There are no quick fixes here.  What you need to do, after the sting wears off, is consider each and every criticism soberly and honestly, decide whether or not the criticism is valid, and whether or not you would change anything if you had the chance to write the story again.

Over the years, I’ve had thousands of rejections from agents and editors.  Thousands!  At the beginning, when I was still in an intense learning process, many of the criticisms were valid.  My stories did start too slowly.  My dialogue did have stilted spots.  I did delve into too much detail. 

But as I continued to develop my craft, the nature of the rejections began to change.  Many of the criticisms, I began to realize, were about my style

Probably the most difficult part of developing the “thick skin” is being able to separate the elements of your writing that are natural to your personal style, that you want to keep, and the elements that are truly part of the craft, that you want to change or improve.  Not everyone will like your style.  And if you develop a truly unique style—which is crucial for success—you will necessarily break some of the rules they teach you in fiction writing classes.

Sorting all this out is not an easy process.  I went through more pain and frustration than I care to remember in dealing with these issues, arguing with agents and editors, screaming and yelling and cursing (in the privacy of my own home), coming to grips with it all.  But I eventually got through it. 

Does criticism still hurt?  Of course it does.  But the sting usually only lasts seconds—namely, as long as it takes me to run through the decision-tree in my head and remember why I did whatever they are criticizing and my logic behind doing it.

A good sign that you have arrived at this place is that you no longer feel the urge to defend yourself or argue with the criticizer.  An impulse to argue is always a sign that you are unsure about the criticism yourself.  If someone walks up to you and says, “The sky is yellow!” do you feel any impulse to argue about it?  No, because you know the sky is blue.  It's a non-issue. You think that the person is either crazy or sees things from such an oddball perspective that you don’t even bother.

When you’re confident about your craft and your personal style, you reach a similar place.  I’m not saying that you ever feel as if you have mastered the art of writing.  The notion is ridiculous—there is always more to learn, at times it seems endless.  But you do reach a point where you are comfortable enough with your writing that you really do have the proverbial “thick skin.”


  1. Excellent post, Mike. I wholeheartedly agree. People who get very upset are just feeling insecure, which is normal, but the only way to overcome that is to keep writing.

    Moody Writing

  2. Wonderful post. I think perhaps the volume of writing I've done in the last year as well as the forum I applied it (fanfiction) has helped me develop that thick skin faster than most. With instant reviews coming in from the website, beta readers giving feedback on each piece, I bot only honed my skill, I got to know it better. I learned where I was weak, and worked to improve. I also learned where I was strong and tried to use those aspects more in my writing.

    I've gotten a fair number of 'bad' reviews as well. They usually fell into two categories: those that had a taste issue - my story didn't work for them - and those with a specific issue. The latter I paid the most attention to. Again, thanks to the form and forum, it was possible to make changes post-publication, something you can't do with a novel or magazine submission.

    Now, I take critique like a champ. I'm even paying more attention to those taste complaints to see if I can make my stories more widely appealing. A thick skin can take a little time, but it is definitely a boon to the writer who has one.

  3. Thanks mood, and Kimberly. I think the Internet has indeed sped up the process, and Kimberly, you're smart for taking advantage. When I was in my steep learning curve (mid-90s) it wasn't developed enough, all I had were writers groups and getting feedback was quite slow.

  4. Good post, Mike! A great account of maturing as a writer and learning to deal with criticism.

  5. Great post, Mike. I started keeping journals when I started and when I look back through them now and see all those ups and downs, highs and lows, I realise what an exciting time it was - and still is! I wouldn't have missed it for the world.

  6. Sometimes the writer is the one crying the sky is yellow. This rarely attracts a large consensus, but does have a ring of the unique about it. Still, unique is not always 'great'.
    When people offer criticism, it's important to see where they are coming from. When they are lost for words, the silence says a lot more. Telling the difference between kinds of criticism is vital, and the motivations of those who comment are also important.

  7. Maybe I'm weird, but the criticism doesn't hurt like everyone else is describing. I look at criticism as input and feedback. I decide whether to use or ignore it, and move on. I never take it personally.

  8. Just when you think finishing your project is the hardest part, you discover that not everyone is going to love your book like you do. Even if they do love it, only a handful of people knows it exists.

    Writing is not for the squeamish. If you don't have a thick skin and stamina, you won't survive.

    I do think it's good to get some distance from bad reviews and see if there's any validity to the criticism. If not, then time to move on.

    Thanks for your sharing your perspective and experience Mike.
    ~rahma krambo

  9. Great post Mike and I can certainly vouch for what you said about growing a think skin. I thought I was doing so by sending my ms to loads of agencies, assuming that each rejection letter received would thicken my resolve. It was only when the ones I reeeeeally wanted or reeeally expected to be a 'yes', when they came back as a 'no', that was when it hurt and when that necessary thick skin started to grow. It's not there yet, the odd rejection still hurts!

  10. I'm a dentist by day- already developed a thick skin. You know how it feels to be told multiple times a day, "I don't like you and don't want to be here"? I do. But on the flip side, as a horror writer, I get to see the look of pure, unadulterated terror each and every day

  11. Bradley, that's hilarious! Never thought about that advantage of being a dentist. You should write comedy, too (or maybe you do). Thanks for the great comment!

  12. AS I just noted on a Facebook group page, on a post on editing, for me, everything comes back to dentistry. I am so much more critical of my own work than the people walking around with it in their mouths. I can spend an hour agonizing over the appearance of a front tooth I've bonded, all the while looking through a pair of dental loupes, and the only one who really cares about perfection is me, The patient just wants something that looks whole. We have all learned in writing, especially when you self-pub, that at some point, after dozens of hours of editing, you just have to let it go and publish it. And if there are problems, you go back and fix them afterwards.

    Now, on criticism, I know you don't have to actually Do what you criticize. Art critics generally don't paint and music critics don't make music and movie critics don't direct. But they generally have experience which leads to an opinion which has validity. What pisses me off, as I discovered when going through Amazon reviews, is when people who are casual readers and don't even read your genre have the cajones to criticize you.

    When i get a bad review, I will often look at that reviewers other reviewers. I write horror... this one reviewer HATED ever Indie horror book she reviewed. But she LOVED every piece of literature she reviewed. You love English Lit? What the hell are you doing reading Indie horror? I mean, with all do respect to James Joyce fans who may read this, Portrait of the Artist was awful, and Ulysses was just as bad. And you know what? If these 2 books epitomize what you love about books, then I am glad you didn't like my books. If you love Lit, please don't look at my work and hold it up to the same standards and judge it. it's not fair. And that's the type of criticism that drives me nuts. it's like me reading a Danielle Steel book and saying it is awful because I don't like the genre. That's like watching the new Transformers Movie and saying it is awful because of thin plot and characters. You have to judge a movie or a book based on the genre it exists in, not whether or not you are a fan of that genre. If horror succeeds in eliciting some emotions, it has done its job. Horror isn't always about scaring you. It can be about making the reader feel uncomfortable.

    So things need to be criticized based on the genre, based on whether it succeeds in doing what that genre strives to do. Not on your feelings towards that genre. If you can't do that, then shut up.

    Thanks for listening to my rambling

  13. Great post! Criticism is never fun, and I definitely still have my moments where I have to get off the internet before I fly off the handle, but it can also be incredibly instructive. If people point out the same flaws over and over again, then it's probably a bigger issue than my style or genre simply not agreeing with them.

  14. I really enjoyed this post. I love the old saying, "You can please some of the people some of the time but you can't please all of the people all of the time." I think it applies here. Some criticisms will be valid and provide us with learning experiences, ways to improve our writing; others will be the opinions of those who just don't "get" what we're trying to accomplish. I guess the trick is in figuring out which is which.

  15. My goodness. Thousands of rejections! Hard to believe after reading your work. Thank you for putting things in perspective. As a new writer I have had around ten rejections so far, but am already beginning to learn that rejection is more a probability than a possibility. If someone likes my work then obviously that's a tremendous bonus. Writing is such an intense and emotional experience that rejection is always difficult. As your post suggests if you can't accept rejection then writing is clearly not the career for you. Always read your posts. Interesting insights, Mike. :)

  16. Totally agree. Sometimes there is still a flicker of shock, but one learns to suppress it.

  17. Great post, Mike, and just what I needed to hear. I am extremely insecure personally...getting better about it all the time, but it still is hard sometimes to just lift the chin and keep smiling. However, my writing is not something I have ever gotten a lot of negative feedback on--it's one of those things that I have always been proud of...yet I am terrified of getting negative feedback about it. My fiction that I have up currently (free) has gotten a lot of great reviews, but once I start trying to ask people to BUY it, then the negatives might come rolling in, LOL! Perhaps it is that stage fright that has been contributing to my being so slow to finish anything of my own. Again, thanks for that, I needed it.

  18. I know my style isn't for a wide audience. Not that many people enjoy puns and layered meanings like I do to start with. I tell myself I'm okay with that since my critique group and a whole class of 7th graders enjoyed my book and wanted more by the end. But I'm still procrastinating the next round of queries. I need a kick. Or maybe just to slow down blog posts and social media taking so much time I don't feel I have time to query. That's inside out, but the soft side of social media is far easier on my skin.

  19. This is a great post! I have a notoriously thin skin, and I just need to keep hearing this sort of thing. I'm also terribly hard on myself, so I usually end up getting better reviews than I give myself, so often my fears are unfounded.

    The criticism of style really have to be kept apart, I agree. I just reviewed a book on B & N, giving it an enthusiastic five stars. I was shocked to find a great many 1-star reviews. Interestingly, there seemed to be mostly 5 and 1-star reviews. There was rarely a criticism of the writing; it just wasn't something that everyone liked.

  20. Solid advice. The good news is that from a marketing standpoint more readers and customers see reviews as more credible if they are a mix of positive and negative. That's something..

  21. Everyone swallows hard after a 1 star...

  22. Great post. As an editor, that first email after I've read the draft is always the hardest. I never know if the writer is going to be excited to hear my 'suggestions' or hurt that I could be so cruel. ;-) Its a tough line to walk but ultimately all feedback (good, bad and ugly) should be used to improve the writers craft rather than taken as a personal attack.

  23. Great advice and points here, Mike! I remember how painful those criticisms were in the early days, crushing, really. There were several points along the way when I wanted to walk away from writing for good, but of course, I always came back to it, because it is the writing that I love. Even now, an unfavorable review leaves an imprint on my heart, but once I've read it and considered it, I go back and read the reviews of people who have liked my books. It reminds me that there are many opinions out there, and the great thing is we have the opportunity to continue reaching out to those readers who like what we write. Thanks for a great post!

    Inglath Cooper

  24. really good post, Mike. I wrote an article on handling rejection, based around Elvis' song, Guitar Man, where he takes off with his guitar and goes looking for a place to play but nobody wanted a guitar man, and how he tramps the hobo jungle until he finally ends up in a club ... rejection, criticism, hurt. I had a 2 page letter of criticism from Black Lace one time, which stung like mad, as you can imagine. I sold the book the same week, and it has since been republished twice. The laugh is on me.
    Criticism is a matter of opinion. Sometimes they're right, sometimes they're wrong. I tell my authors, take what feels right from my comments, ignore the rest. It works. And we work, we keep right on writing, don't we? just like that swinging little guitar man.

  25. Great post. I received a particularly unpleasant rejection the other day, and it took some time to wipe off the sting. I thought I was at that place already, but apparently not!

  26. Great post and so very true. I didn't submit to many agents, as shortly after I wrote my first book, I decided on the indie route, but... I have felt the sting of a bad review and you're so right. Once you get over the initial shock, trying to take the constructive criticism is helpful, but do need a thick skin!!
    Enjoyed your post.
    Best regards,
    Elizabeth Parker (golden_books) on Twitter

  27. Your words seem wise and reassuring. Much of my own writing has been around mental health/psychiatric issues and, as you no doubt can imagine, there are a range of views that often trigger conflict and criticism.

    With regards to my (limited) attempts at fiction and (more frequent)general non-fiction pieces the more difficult scenario is when you submit and don't hear anything.
    Useful post. Thank you.

    1. Glad the post was helpful, Bryan, thanks for your comments.