Thick Skin: The Key to a Writer’s Survival

How many times have you heard the new-writer’s advice: Develop a thick skin.

You’d think this would be even more of a requirement for an agent. It’s good advice for anyone who’s visible on the Internet, frequently giving their opinion on things. So all in all, you probably think I’d be a person with a thick skin.

However, I have a confession: tortoiseI don’t have a thick skin.

Not at all. I have a fragile heart, I take things personally, and I don’t just bounce back right away when I receive criticism.

Paradoxically, I truly appreciate helpful critiques of my work,or advice on how to improve any area of my life. I crave it. I value the input of others. Yet at the same time, if it’s not always positive, I have a hard time getting over the hurt feelings (or the knee-jerk angry reaction) and moving on to actually learning from the criticism.

The reason I’m telling you this is because I know people are telling you “develop a thick skin” and I know some of you are thinking, “I don’t know how to do that.” And I’m here to tell you: Some of you will never develop a thick skin.

But the important thing is: You’ll survive.

If I’ve survived all these years in the competitive environment of publishing, and previously, five years in the extremely dog-eat-dog world of network television, you will survive, too. You survive by first, allowing yourself to experience the pain. You find ways to express it in a healthy way, perhaps by taking a day to cry, or talking it over with your best friend, or calling your mom because she’s the one person who always supports you no matter what.

Then, you turn it around. You ask yourself if the criticism came from someone to whom you should listen. If the answer is yes, then you begin looking for ways to learn from what they said. You ask yourself whether you disagree or agree with what they said. (You give yourself permission to disagree with at least part of it.) Then you take what you can learn from, and discard the rest. Move on to the next thing.

Easier said than done, of course. And I admit, it sometimes takes me awhile to work through this process!

So what about you? Are you thick skinned? If not, how do you handle criticism? Are you able to learn from it anyway?

  1. Author Phillis T Forrest says:

    Through A Child’s Eyes structured rules and guidelines to protect children from child sexual predators that mother’s may unintentional bring into their lives.

  2. Teresa Haugh says:

    I think the most important thing you said is, “You ask yourself if the criticism came from someone to whom you should listen.” If so, then I try to do something constructive with the good advice. If not, I just try to let it go.

  3. Mona MacDonald says:

    I believe that vulnerability is innate and I love the comment to consider the source of the criticism. If it is from someone to whom I should listen, i.e. my daughter. She is an avid reader of the mystery romance type and a gifted writer in her own right. When I gave her my novel for critique, although nervous about it, I seriously considered her feedback and her written red letter notes all over my novel of 300 some pages. (like highschool & college all over again!) My almost finished product is something I am more proud of because of it.

  4. I am a newbie, and I only have one story published so far, in an anthology. I remember giving it to my roommate to get her feedback. I know, the advice is to never let friends read a first draft. Well, she is a very avid reader and great with spotting problems. She told me that something didn’t make sense to her at all. Well, I got my defenses up. Then I realized what I was doing. I actually started laughing. I apologized and rewrote the scene. She was right. It didn’t come across as I had intended. It was a very short story and I must have rewritten it about 6 times, at least. I began to wonder if I really had what it takes to write a novel. I still wonder, frankly. Yet, I don’t let it stop me. It may take years, but I am going to do it. Thanks for the encouragement! 🙂

  5. Lisa Van Engen says:

    I love this encouragement… you may never get a thick skin, but you will survive. I have found this to be so true, and I am better for it.

  6. Leah C. Morgan says:

    I never thought about agents being affected. How revealing. This must mean there are plenty of opportunities to be smacked down in many arenas of living.
    3 years ago when I started working in sales I heard managers offering condolences to the personel for the level of rejection they received. I thought I must’ve joined a pathetic group of insecure people. Now I understand. We receive criticism not even directed at us, we’re often a criticism conduit meant to buffer and transport the blows down the pipeline. I’m the closest thing to uninsultable I know and I still had to hear many times not to take it personally when a customer was rude.
    For creative things, I cut people the same slack I give myself. I don’t always love the taste of my friends as much as I love them. I can’t expect them to love my words in their particular shades and arrangement. But one insult that really mattered to me, because the level of respect I assigned the person, went into a Word document. I enlarged the text and separated the thoughts. I came back to it a few times and breathed more evenly each time. I forced myself to acknowledge the praise present there and not obess over the insults. Some things I could better. So it was good to be told. Some things are part of the package of me that won’t go away. I won’t appeal to everyone. It was a shock to learn everyone in the world, but that one person loves me.
    I’m still a fan of theirs.

  7. Dr. Bruce Anderson says:

    Hello Rachelle,
    Thank you so much for sharing, in a most honest way; an issue that is important to pioneers and creative individuals. I have been involved in creative positions almost my entire adult life and from that I have developed some survival techniques myself. I have followed your news letters and website for about three years.
    Positive criticism is easier to digest than negative criticism. Historically it would seem that it is always cheaper and faster to destroy than it is to build. I have been a musician composer (award winning), media producer (award winning) and physician (award winning) and to this day, my negative critics out number my positive critics.

    And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?
    – Matthew 7:3

    No one is useless in this world who lightens the burden of it to anyone else.
    -Charles Dickens

    The profession doesn’t seem to get any easier, you just get better at managing your part in it.
    -Dr. Bruce Anderson

  8. Carolyn Branch says:

    Thanks, this is so encouraging. I’ve been beating myself up because I let negative comments hurt, even if I (usually) manage to hide my reaction. It’s good to know I am not alone.

  9. Walt Mussell says:

    In the years I’ve been writing, I can think of only twice where comments actually got to me. The most red-lined critiques I’ve seen are critiques of my work only and even the weirdest comments have value.

  10. E.G. Moore says:

    As a writer, I also struggle with my responses to critiques, even ones I’ve asked for. I’ve found that if I have that reaction, its best to let it stew for a few days before responding. Then I reread it, choose which parts I’m going to utilize and make a plan. I try to focus on their good intentions to avoid responding harshly. The thick skin is starting to grow, but I still have a long way to go.

  11. Mark Siraguasa says:

    Thick Skin ?
    Ha! I believe that an author should respectfully work hand in hand with their publisher. Give your finished work to your publisher in the way that they would want it. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t have good communication and give your view on your subject, but realize the publisher’s point of view as well.
    Maybe both parties may resolve the issue in to something much greater than originally conceived.
    Thank you to Ms. Gardner from Mark in Rochester, NY

  12. Adam Porter says:

    It’s been my experience that faux alligator skin doubles as a shield from constructive criticism. Pretending it “doesn’t hurt” reduces the chances of the “lesson in the no” from penetrating and making you better. Helpful critiques are like a gorgeous tattoo: beautiful and meaningful … but YES it hurts.

  13. Jessica Berg says:

    I have the furthest thing from thick skin. I take things too much to heart, but like you I do crave honest critiques of my writing. Even as a high school English teacher I’ve had to learn to not wear my heart on my sleeve (a hard thing to do sometimes). Thank you for posting this blog. It reassured me that being soft hearted doesn’t equate to being weak.

  14. Barry Knister says:

    Hello Rachelle.
    You’re right. No one who is at all serious about any aspect of the publishing business can afford to be too thin-skinned. The reason? Thin-skinned people don’t last long enough to learn what they need to know. With me, developing some ego armor has kept me going long enough to finally understand why two people in your profession–agents–took me on, but never got me a deal. It’s because they were what I call “throw it against the wall” agents. They take on writers with potential, but the agents either don’t know or don’t care enough to make the writers’ manuscripts truly ready before sending them out–that is, before throwing them against the publishing wall in hopes they will stick with an editor. Only because I wasn’t too thin-skinned did I finally come to this realization.

    • Rachelle Gardner says:

      You’re so right. The learning process requires it!

    • Barry Knister says:

      Correction: agents don’t make manuscripts ready for submission, writers do. But writers need the guidance of a wise, involved agent to do this important work. That’s what I mean.

  15. Heather King says:

    I don’t have thick skin and it’s something that I’ve worried over in the past as I write more and more. I think it wouldn’t be so bad if I were better able to discern constructive and fair feedback versus untrue, hurtful criticism borne out of jealousy or judgment or whatever. Criticism will surely come, so I’m trying to learn to consider the source a bit better instead of just assuming the ‘customer is always right.’

    • Rachelle Gardner says:

      It’s difficult when you have a tender heart. It takes time to develop the resilience we all need!

  16. Jennifer Dyer says:

    I needed this today of all days. Thank you!

  17. Tracy L says:

    Wow, thanks for this insightful post! Like you, I am very sensitive but also want to produce quality work, so I do try to listen and learn from constructive criticism. But sometimes things get to me and I’ve always questioned my ability to develop a thick skin. Just having you say I don’t have to and that I’ll survive without it-it sounds silly but what a relief!

  18. Sue Coletta says:

    What a nice post. To answer your question, yes, I’ve developed rhino skin. That’s not to say that rejection or harsh criticism doesn’t sting, but I don’t dwell on it. Usually there are nuggets of wisdom in the remarks. I believe it’s about separating personal from professional, which is not always easy, but it is necessary.

  19. Peter DeHaan says:

    This post is so very helpful. Thank you, Rachelle.

    By nature I am a sensitive person so criticism can really sting. I am getting better at accepting input from others and am developing the thick skin I need in this industry.

  20. Annecdotist says:

    Well said, Rachelle. I think sometimes we feel as if we’re inadequate if we are hurt by criticism, which only further compounds the pain. Yet if we accept that hurt as part of the journey, something from which we can move on, it can be an opportunity for growth. I think another layer of protection comes from familiarity with our areas of vulnerability, so that we can tell ourselves “there’s that thing again” and remember the times we’ve got over it, even if we’ve needed a duvet day to do so.

  21. Kate Larkindale says:

    Good advice. I think I have a reasonably thick skin about some things, but others I just can’t seem to shake off the same way…. Luckily writing critique is one of the things I can handle without beating myself up for days. It’s the rest of my life I need to toughen up to.

    • Rachelle Gardner says:

      I imagine we all have certain things to which we are more sensitive. I feel like I’ve toughened up in some areas but not others. We’re always learning, aren’t we?

  22. I am quite a bit more thick skinned than I used to be. Sure, I can still get bugged by criticism but reading the following words of wisdom always get me back on the right track.

    “When you do work that matters, the crowd will call you a fool. If you do something remarkable, something new and something important, not everyone will understand it (at first). Your work is for someone, not everyone. Unless you’re surrounded only by someones, you will almost certainly encounter everyone. And when you do, they will jeer. That’s how you’ll know you might be onto something.”
    — Seth Godin

    “Any fool can criticize, condemn and complain . . . and most fools do.”
    — Dale Carnegie

    “A tiger doesn’t lose sleep over the opinion of sheep.”
    — Unknown wise person

    “Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambition. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.”
    — Mark Twain

    “A non-doer is very often a critic — that is, someone who sits back and
    watches doers, and then waxes philosophically about how the doers are doing. It’s easy to be a critic, but being a doer requires effort, risk, and change.”
    — Dr. Wayne Dyer

    “Many people, especially ignorant people, want to punish you for speaking the truth, for being correct, for being you. Never apologize for being correct, or for being years ahead of your time. If you’re right and you know it, speak your mind. Speak your mind even if you are a minority of one.
    The truth is still the truth.”
    — Mohandas Gandhi

    “Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds. The mediocre mind is incapable of understanding the man who refuses to bow blindly to conventional prejudices and chooses instead to express his opinions courageously and honestly.”
    — Albert Einstein

    “Criticism is difficult to do well. Recently, we’ve made it super easy for unpaid, untrained, amateur critics to speak up loudly and often. Just because you can hear them doesn’t mean that they know what they’re talking about. Criticism is easy to do, but rarely worth listening to, mostly because it’s so easy to do.”
    — Seth Godin

    “My courage always rises at every attempt to intimidate me.”
    — Jane Austin

    Ultimately, I try to be like Joel Osteen who said, “Everyone has a right to an opinion and I have the right to ignore that opinion.” Fact is, the more successful you become, the more criticism you are going to attract and the more criticism you will need to ignore.

    Ernie J. Zelinski
    The Prosperity Guy
    “Helping Adventurous Souls Live Prosperous and Free”
    Author of the Bestseller “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free”
    (Over 260,000 copies sold and published in 9 languages)
    and the International Bestseller “The Joy of Not Working”
    (Over 280,000 copies sold and published in 17 languages)

    • Rachelle Gardner says:

      Wow, great quotes, Ernie. Thanks for sharing!

      • Joseph says:

        Once you decide to go public, you have to be open to criticism – constructive or not!. The crucial thing is to hear it or read it all but then digest what in the best of your judgement really matters and is of any value. If it is true, accept it and try to improve on it even if it hurts; that makes you stronger with a thicker skin. That makes you refined and able to take up greater challenges. That shows that you are humble and not haughty, knowing it all. At the level of humbleness you will find your deeper self from where the best creations emerge. A thicker skin shouldn’t be developed to cucoon yourself in it. A thicker skin should be developed to be better protect yourself from shying away from reality and, maybe, give up. So, it’s good to understand that certain feedback can be hard to bear at times, but a thicker skin makes you walk more easily on uneven ground.

        Joseph

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