Why Writers Need Thin Skin

by Mike Duran · 18 comments

One of the most helpful letters I ever received was a rejection letter. If I’d had thick skin, however, I may have never benefited from it.

It was back in 2007. I was only two years into writing, finally gaining enough confidence to begin submitting to professional paying magazines. What followed were dozens of form style rejections thanking me for submitting, saying the pieces weren’t suitable, and wishing me luck on placing them elsewhere. Not only were these letters disappointing, they were not helpful. I mean, how would I grow as a writer unless I knew what professionals thought about my stuff? Besides that it wasn’t worthy for their mag.

Then I received this email from a pro-grade speculative fiction magazine regarding my short story “Subterranea.”

Mike,

Thank you for your interest in xxxxxxx and your recent submission, “Subterranea .”

There are lovely beginnings, here, but too many.   It seems to restart at least 3 times, the last at about the mid-way point.  Also, the digging metaphors, which felt, at first, fresh and poignant, became tiresome about here:  “I immediately set a spike and began my descent;” they begin to sound awkward, especially when married to allusions to building bridges.

The story, overall, felt like Lovecraft as told by Dashiell Hammett, which is very clever, but about here:  “It wasn’t long before he saw the hardhats again,” I realized that the true protagonist of the story was Mr. Gordon Sartwell, and the voice should perhaps be his, instead of the mesmerist, who added a bit of opening drama but no substance to the meat of the plot.

Therefore, I unfortunately am unable to accept your story for publication at xxxxxxxx.

Writers are often told we need thick skin to weather rejection. There’s a lot of truth to that. Sometimes we need to discard critique, ignore rejection, and simply press on. But I wonder if the opposite isn’t also true: We need thin skin to learn from critique.

After months of form rejections, the above letter was a revelation for me. A professional editor, someone who probably saw hundreds of stories a month, took the time out of her schedule to write someone she didn’t know, someone she wasn’t even going to publish, and articulate the pros and cons of their piece. Sure, it was still a rejection letter. I could have snarled, deleted it,  and ignored her advice.

But my skin wasn’t thick enough.

Charles Spurgeon, the famous British preacher, once told the story about an anonymous critic who, after each of the minister’s sermons, would send a weekly list of his mispronunciations, slips of speech, redundancies, and misquotes. Spurgeon concluded,

“Possibly some young men might have been discouraged, if not irritated, by such severe criticisms, but they would have been very foolish, for in resenting such corrections they would have been throwing away a valuable aid to progress. No money can purchase outspoken honest judgment, and when we get it for nothing let us utilize it to the fullest extent.” (The Blind Eye and the Deaf Ear, Lectures to My Students)

Not only was Spurgeon unoffended, he grew to relish the critique and came to see them as “a valuable aid to progress.” Spurgeon wrote of his anonymous critic, “He never signed his name, and that was my only cause of complaint against him, for he left me in a debt I could not acknowledge.”

Question: Are your critics “a valuable aid to progress” or a pain in the ass?

I blogger recently reviewed The Resurrection and gave it a thumbs-up… with some caveats. I emailed him the following letter.

Just wanted to say thanks for reading The Resurrection and posting a review. I am really interested in working through some of the weaker elements of my writing style, and felt from your review that I could trust you to be honest with me about some of them. From reading The Resurrection, what advice would you give me for my next novel. Things I need to avoid or work on. And please — nothing offends me! I’m genuinely interested in growing. Thanks again for your review.

Some would probably say I am setting a dangerous precedent for myself. No doubt, the quickest way to paralysis would be to listen to everyone’s opinion about your writing. Nevertheless, this does not mean we shouldn’t listen to some.

Point is: It’s possible for us writers to work so hard on developing thick skin that we become hardened to the things that will help us grow. We develop blind spots that cripple our career or stunt our spiritual growth, all under the guise of “thick skin.” We become so beholden to gushing five star reviews that anything less is a personal affront. The writer who is worst off is not the one who is naive, lazy, or amateurish — because every writer is this sometimes. Rather, it’s the writer who refuses to receive critique.

So let me ask you, Is your skin thin enough for the writing business?

Patrick Todoroff March 21, 2011 at 5:27 AM

Sure as hell hope so.

Jay March 21, 2011 at 5:55 AM

The search for the critique of our own artistry is probably the only socially acceptable form of masochism in existence. When we get a sound whacking at a weak spot we smile at the pain — but the real task is separating the wheat of constructive thought from the chaff of personal preferences. I’m assuming that professionals know not to crack the whip at things “they wouldn’t read themselves” and instead aim for the truly damaged areas, but as a neophyte, how am I supposed to know?

Mike Duran March 21, 2011 at 6:21 AM

Jay, I have been shopping a short story for several years that I really like, but is admittedly weird. Experimental. I recently received this email from the editorial team of a paying sci-fi mag:

***

“Thank you for your submission to xxxxxxx. I regret to inform you that we are unable to use it at this time. Following are some comments for your edification by the mighty Slushmasters:
—–
Strange, and I wouldn’t call it space opera. So I’ll say no.
—–
I couldn’t follow it. There wasn’t enough being explained to catch my interest. Just a bunch of words on a page.
—–
Anybody know where I can get some squid beaks (a reference I make in the story)? Decline.
—–
I hope this feedback helps in your journey as a short fiction author. Thank you again, and we hope to hear from you in the future.”

***
At this stage, I have two choices. Ignore the response I’m getting or listen deeply. Being that I’ve shopped this piece extensively and received NO interest, I am forced to conclude that these publishers are onto something. This story is just too weird (even though I liked the squid beaks).

All that to say: Growing as a writer (or not growing) is tied to our responses at such times. Knowing when to listen or press on is probably part of the maturing process. I can’t tell you where that line is for you, Jay. But admitting there may be “truly damaged areas” to our stories is probably the first step to growing as a novelist. Blessings on the writing journey!

Jay March 21, 2011 at 8:00 AM

I actually LOLed at the squid beaks comment.

I haven’t ever submitted a story to anything except a free site (which was accepted with suspicious quickness), so I’m making comments in the dark.

Thanks!

Jessica Thomas March 21, 2011 at 6:55 AM

Interesting way to turn it around. I tend to think of “thin skin” as someone who breaks out into tears and says, “I’ll never submit again, everybody hates me.” Versus “thick skin” who might cry a little, but then says, “Okay, maybe there’s some truth to what this person’s saying, let me look at my story again…”

To me, thick skin takes the licking and gets back up and tries again, but thin skin just gives up.

Either way you define it, I think we’re in agreement that yes, writer’s definitely need to be able to take “negative” criticism, apply it objectively to their writing and look for areas of potential improvement.

I just got rejected yesterday for a poem. All three editors said my title was no good. Then my husband said it and agreed. My title’s no good. Bah! (See, I get frustrated at first but then I will listen…and one day I will come up with a new, hopefully better title.)

Mark H. March 21, 2011 at 7:20 AM

It seems like the real question is, can you take a step back from your work and look at it objectively? When someone brings up a criticism, are you able to look at it through their eyes? Or do you get defensive right away?

By the way, I’m halfway through The Resurrection and enjoying it…

W. J. Howard March 21, 2011 at 8:03 AM

Excellent points, especially in the midst of the evolving publishing industry. Unfortunately, professional advice is scoffed at more and more these days because it’s so easy to self-publish. And, too often I’ve heard writer’s say that taking the advice they’re given would compromise the story they’ve written. HUH!! I agree with you wholeheartedly, you can always loosen that thick skin and make room for improvements.

Julie Musil March 21, 2011 at 8:47 AM

You bring up such excellent points! I cherish the critiques I receive. No, it’s not always easy to hear it, but after I stew over it for a couple of days, I recognize the truth behind the criticism. It’s helped strengthen my manuscript big time.

Katie Ganshert March 21, 2011 at 9:28 AM

Brilliant post, Mike! I couldn’t agree more. Yes, we need to let some things slide off our backs. Like unhelpful bad reviews. And you’re also right, there’s no way we could (or should) listen to everybody’s opinion. But the minute we start casting all the feedback aside is the minute we stop growing.

Jill March 21, 2011 at 10:27 AM

To me, thin skin means I’m of Celtic stock and burn easily in the sun. But joking aside, I wonder why you’re actively courting negative or mixed reviews. No work of writing is perfect. I find faults in my most favorite novels. You will never eradicate faults from your work. It would be better, therefore, to focus attention on depth, understanding, and style.

Just so you know, I’ll be posting a review of your book on my blog by midnight mountain time tonight, March 21. I’ll tell you what I liked, didn’t like, and why it ultimately worked for me. Click my name above for a link to my blog. Or don’t. It’s up to you. 🙂

Mike Duran March 21, 2011 at 12:32 PM

Jill asked, “I wonder why you’re actively courting negative or mixed reviews.” It’s interesting that you see it that way, Jill. And now that you say it, I see how it can look that way. Really, it’s just a reaction to what I feel are kid gloves being used, and sought out, by many in the writing community. But I still have feelings, so please don’t hammer me too hard. Looking forward to the review at your blog.

Katherine Coble March 21, 2011 at 11:03 AM

I meet more writers these days who are so convinced of their own greatness than there should ever be in the whole of history. In my life I’ve read thousands upon thousands of books. Only a handful were what I would call great. Likewise only a couple of handfuls were terrible. Most of them were good, fun or a combination thereof.

But so many writers who are writing really BAD stuff–and I’ve read more really BAD stuff in the last five years than in the previous 32 years of being able to read–are far too practised at finding reasons to disregard what is truly helpful criticism.

For example: I recently read one very bad novel that had been published by an actual publishing house. It was commercially viable to a certain market, I suppose. But the writing was genuinely BAD. Not “not my taste” bad or “I read other genres” bad. It was technically awful. Phony dialogue not fitted to the time period, expository dialogue throughout, anachronistic turns of phrase in both dialogue and descriptors. What few descriptors there were. Add to that the several places where the writer STOPPED telling the story for pages on end and started downloading whole chunks of their decidedly contemporary worldview.

Yet when I posted a review with these very valid criticisms the writer responded by writing them off because s/he was “published so [they were] doing something right” and it was “obvious that this type of story wasn’t [my] cup of tea anyway” so I should “not bother being so negative and go read something [I] enjoy instead.”

Whether or not you’re published, if your work could be better it could be better. I know of not one publishing contract that never expires. I’ve watched a great many authors who lucked into contracts five and six years ago when certain publishers were looking for a certain type of work who are now having a great deal of struggle trying to find new homes for their work. They might struggle less if they adopted your advice about how to handle criticsm.

R. L. Copple March 21, 2011 at 6:31 PM

Good points, Mike. I sort of have a love/hate relationship with the whole thin/thick skin thing. I know what it is trying to get at, that we need to not take criticism of our precious babies so personally, and use it to learn and grow where there are valid points to be made, and I totally agree with that. I did a sermon many years ago, prior to my writing fiction, about how to handle criticism in a constructive way.

That said, to give a different view than what’s been presented here thus far, I think some writers/critiquers use the “you need a thick skin” line as an excuse for being insensitive and disrespectful. I’ve always felt you shouldn’t need a thick skin in writing other than in not reacting to true disrespect. If the criticism is aimed at my work, and where I could improve, that’s one thing.

And I think sometimes critiquers don’t even realize they are doing it. For instance, one person might address a problem with a story as:

“The dialog didn’t sound natural at this point in the story. The motivations for what they said didn’t make sense. I think she would need more of a reason to react to him that way.”

Which would be a respectful way to say it, not requiring a “thick” skin. Or, I’ve received notes like the following before as well:

“Dude! She wouldn’t say that. This is the worse dialog ever. It sounds like a gorilla taught by Tarzan how to speak. Readers what to hear beauty, not awkwardly worded drivel like this.”

Which has the underlying message, “You couldn’t write good dialog if you recorded a roomful of people and typed it on a page what they said. You might as well hang it up.” (Any resemblance to a real critique is purely coincidental as I just made this up on the spot.)

Most certainly we need to be able to take it, and ignore the rest that goes over the top. But as critiquers, neither should we allow the “you need a thick skin” for writing to mean, “I can be snarky and rough” either.

I think respectful critiques don’t require a thick skin. But there are some so thin skinned that even a respectful critique will come across to them as a full-on attack. That’s where the needing a thicker skin comes into play. But neither do I need a bunch of emotional callouses from drive-by critique potshots either.

Dave Wilson March 21, 2011 at 7:42 PM

Mike,

Great post. As an advertising copywriter, my work is critiqued constantly. Sometimes the suggestions come from knowledgeable people who are very helpful. Other times, I can receive ill-advised feedback from those who don’t know what they’re talking about.

The challenge, for me anyway, is to be humble enough to receive from anyone, any time.

Dave

JoTigger March 21, 2011 at 9:20 PM

I was surprised by the title of this post, but then as I read on, I realized that “thin skin” and “thick skin” in my mother tongue, Chinese, meant just the opposite to your intended meanings. Thanks for this language lesson and your advice on being/becoming a writer.

Katie March 22, 2011 at 4:22 PM

I really liked this post because I think it applies to every area in life… from writing to spiritual maturity. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how valuable it is to have people honestly point out those disagreeable (or even sinful) aspects of my character. And I have to agree with Spurgeon.

Louise G March 26, 2011 at 5:32 AM

Thanks! Good read and I really appreciate the reminder of the importance of being open to constructive criticism.

PS. I found you here through Glynn’s, reading list this morning over at Faith. Fiction. Friends.

I’m glad I did!

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