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Thursday, October 15, 2009

Do I need Thick Skin to write?

Dear Liana,
My friend dragged me to her writer's group last week. I was polite. I sat through everyone else's readings. And then they trashed my work! They said it was boring, and unimaginative, and derivative! My friend and I argued afterward. I told him I'm never going back. My novel is very well written. If they can't understand that, they aren't any help.
But my friend says I need to grow a thick skin and learn to accept criticism.
If I can write well, why do I need to accept criticism?

Written Well in Washington

Dear Written Well,
This sounds like a multi-layered problem bit I'm only going to address one point: thick skin.

The short answer is, yes, you need a thick skin. You need to be able to handle criticism well. Even the best writers need a thick skin. Arguably, they need a thicker skin than anyone else. Because people will rip apart your writing regardless of your talent.

And it isn't going to stop once you've sold your book.

Yes, maybe the rejection letters stop for a little while. But the reviews won't all be good. They never are. Not even if you are the best author on the planet. Mundania Press had an excellent article on this earlier in the week.

I'm not saying that you need to be so callous that you don't care what people say about your writing. You can care. You can cry. You can think people are idiots even. You just can't say anything in return. Having a thick skin means that you slap a smile on your face and keep writing.

If you can't do that, than your work isn't ready for prime time.

Keep writing!


  1. It won't stop once you get published. It won't stop even if you're generally considered to be a great artist: I think The Great Gatsby is garbage and I have a friend who thinks Hemingway is a hack.

    If you, as an author, are happy with your current state of affairs (published, unpublished, etc.) then you don't need to ACCEPT criticism, you can simply ignore it because you like your writing and you like where your writing is going and there's no need for you to change anything.

    If, however, you want to achieve more than you currently have, then I think it behooves you to listen to the people who think your writing DOESN'T work, for whatever reason. Someone out there will have the key to your next step of writerly development, and you can't learn it if you're not listening to anyone.

  2. In my own belief, if Well Written was indeed well written, then there would not have been so much of the "tearing apart". That this writer had immediately jumped on the defensive attack on their friend afterwards is a sign of pomposity, overconfidence, and maybe a little fear. I wonder if this friend may have been trying to send a message to Well Written, to bring home in what he'd hoped would be a kind way that no, the writing isn't perfect and yes, there is still work yet to be done.

    A writer never stops growing or developing his or her craft, and with that comes a thick skin. Every writer, whether a best seller or a novice, must learn to take criticism, whether constructive or no, with a smile and a promise to themselves not to lash out in any way. If it helps make the writing better, great. If not, then shrug it off. But as CKHB said, it'd be better to listen carefully to it all, and be honest with yourself about your work before dismissing anything less than a glowing critique. You could be blinding yourself to the ingredients that can make your writing great, not simply well.

    Furthermore, it wouldn't do, once you became a best seller, to react as you did to a negative review, or as Alice Hoffman did. There is such a bad thing as bad publicity.

  3. Brittany- Thank you for your comments! I agree that's a possible scenario, but I'd hate to judge a novel without reading it myself. Welcome to the blog!

    CKHB- You don't ever need to accept anything. But I think you're right, it's best to listen and see if the critics have something useful to say. They may not, but a bruised ego is a small price to pay for improving your work.

  4. Nice picture. :)

    Yes, thick skin. I learned this the hard way, as we all do. As I remember, you were there to help!

  5. Dear Liana,

    I read the slush pile at a literary agency and trust me when I say that writing rejection letters is the WORST part of my job. I never forget that behind that letter is a real person with real dreams. What good would trashing the writer do? It would leave me feeling like a jerk who ruined someone's dream for no reason and leave them feeling like a failure. I always try to tell them what they did right (because everyone has done something right) and then what they need to change. Because even if we can't help them publish it, maybe someone else can. It may sound silly but I really want to see the best books make it and if your book wasn't good this time around and you make it better because I told you something that helped (even if it hurt and you hate me for it), I'm glad I did it. Go ahead and hate me. Because I'll buy a copy of your book.

    Even if someone else told you your work wasn't good, don't assume they're trying to hurt you. First, consider the source. Who are these people? What do they know? Are they trying to help you, harm you, do your interests coincide? Everyone is going to have a different opinion--listen to people who know what they're talking about. And NEVER throw away a draft.

    The best writers are those who can take a comment and know whether to toss it, take it, or reshape it. So make your own decision but don't let them upset you.

    It's a really a trick question. You don't need thick skin to write. You need thick skin to publish--thick, but not impenetrable.