Why you don’t need “thin skin” to be a writer

Posted by on December 22, 2014

A lot of you have probably run into the expression that if you want to succeed as a writer, you need to have thick skin. The idea is that since you will get critical feedback from others, you need to be somewhat impervious to that criticism. Having thin skin, on the other hand, means letting the criticism “get to you” in some way. There are some major problems that can only happen if you let criticism “get to you” emotionally, which is why people advocate “thick skin”: if the criticism doesn’t get to you, you won’t react in a way that will harm your career.

So, here are some of the problems with “thin skin”:

1. Unprofessionalism. The most obvious reason people tell other writers to get “thick skin” is that they have seen an example of a writer doing something unprofessional. Some writers have lashed out defensively at people offering criticism, often their own readers. This alienates readers, publishers, other writers, other professionals, and the general public, including other potential readers.

2. Hubris. Another problem with letting criticism “get to you” is that it might keep you from making changes to improve your writing. If you feel the criticism too sharply, it’s easy to retreat into the idea that the critic is stupid and that therefore, the criticism is useless. While it is important to be confident as a writer, ignoring useful feedback is dangerous, even if you do it privately.

3. Writing paralysis. The most dangerous problem is that you’ll become paralyzed and not be able to either sell your current work or not write new work because you are upset about the criticism. According to Dean Wesley Smith, the only way you can kill your career is to stop writing. So if the criticism stops you from writing or selling your work, it is harming your career.

Obviously, having “thick skin” avoids these problems. However, there is an alternative, at least for writers. Almost all criticism comes to writers in the form of writing. This usually means that you are in a private place when you receive it. Maybe family is present, but the critic himself usually is far away. This privacy is why I say that you can still have “thin skin” and avoid the three problems above if you are a writer.

That alternative is to develop resilience. This is my method. When I receive criticism, it does get to me. For anywhere from an hour to a day, I am overwhelmed with the emotional impact of the criticism. But because I know I have thin skin, there are two things I don’t do during that period: 1) I don’t make any decisions concerning my work, and 2) I do not react to the criticism in any way the public or the critic can discover. I keep my reaction private, and I usually remind myself and others that this will pass. It always does. And then, I think about the criticism rationally, and I deal with it as if I had thick skin.

Only I don’t. And there are advantages to using the resilience approach rather than the thicker skin approach.

If you actually have thick skin, it means you aren’t letting the emotional impact hit you, or you are softening the blow before it hits your core. This makes it much easier to avoid giving up on writing, ignoring useful feedback, and behaving badly in public. That’s good. But it also means you aren’t feeling as deeply. Since a lot of good writing comes from intense emotion, having thin skin allows you to draw on emotion much more easily.

What about you? What are your strategies for dealing with unpleasant criticism?

Last modified on December 22, 2014

Categories: Reflection
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