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March 2017

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Thick Skin

You may have heard that writers need to develop a thick skin so that they can accept critique, face rejections, and deal with reviews. My take on that is: Well, yes and no.

I don't think it's possible--or desirable, for that matter--to become impervious to the reception of our work. One thing I've learned about life is that pain can only be shut out at the cost of shutting out joy, too, and anything else to which we might wish to remain open. Writing is an act of communication; most of us write not only to express something, but to have it read by someone and, ideally, appreciated. There's nothing wrong with that, and nothing to be ashamed of if we find it painful when we fall short of that goal.

I don't mean that we need to take every criticism and every "no" to heart, nor do I mean that we should wallow in rejection. Because it's also true that there is a lot of subjectivity in the way writing is received. It's true that a "no" in the publishing world is not personal. It's true that a piece of writing that provokes stinging feedback has often cut to the heart of something important. It's true that our self-esteem need not ride on the opinions of others. It's true that writing is its own reward, and the joy we get in saying what we want to say may ultimately be the best part of the process.

But so often, writers suffer not only because whatever rite of passage they're dealing with at the moment is painful, but because they think they should be handling it better. "If I were a pro, this wouldn't bother me." "I shouldn't feel this way.'" "I just need to get over this." The fact is, rejection and negative feedback never feel good. They just don't, and if your twentieth rejection bothers you as much as your first, it's not because there's something wrong with you, it's because you're human. Rejection and negative feedback are part of the process and they can even be helpful, and we need to handle them with professionalism and maturity. And if you get to the point where they don't bother you, that's wonderful. But if they do bother you, don't add to the pain by trying to force yourself not to care.

I've wanted to post this for a long time, but I wanted to wait until I was in a fairly neutral place--like now, when I'm not currently dealing with any particular instance of negative feedback. What I find true for myself when it happens, though, is this: my reaction depends on many factors. Sometimes I can shrug it off with a "whatever" and other times it's like a punch in the gut. A couple of times, I've even found humor in the situation. I remember a day on which I got a short-story rejection in the same mail as a short-story acceptance, and I can tell you, the rejection that day didn't hurt a bit!

It all depends on how I feel about the project in question, how much I know/like/respect the source of the feedback, how much truth I find (or don't) in whatever is said, and whether there is any hope or encouragement included. It also depends on how I was already feeling that day, what else is going on in my life, and which way the wind is blowing. Do I have a thick skin? Yes and no. I'm a writer: I try to remain open to all experiences.


I think that this is brilliant, and I wholeheartedly agree. I've had some of my short stories rejected and it definitely stung. Whenever I get feedback from my critique partners, I delay opening the email because I'm worried that what they say will hurt too much. Obviously, I know they're not trying to hurt me and they always highlight the parts they like, etc., but it's still so hard for me to open the email. I get jittery and nervous and I read the critiques so quickly they don't even register. Then I take a deep breath and read them again, and decide whether I agree with them or not. It's tough! Anyway, thanks for this post.
Ha, I always read my critiques very quickly too, the first time, just to get the gist. Then I reread slowly once the suspense is over!
Yet another lovely post which compels me to comment. If I didn't know better, I would think you have been reading my mind:-)

Your last paragraph expresses exactly the factors that influence how I react to rejection or feedback. Sometimes if I go back and read things a day later, I have a completely different reaction.

Sometimes negative feedback will spur me on to dig deeper, work harder, just so I can prove the naysayer wrong.

Yes, sometimes it hurts. But I try to view all feedback, positive and negative, as a catalyst to move me to greater writing.

Thanks for your candor.

"I try to view all feedback, positive and negative, as a catalyst to move me to greater writing."

Great attitude! After we've digested feedback, if it's on target, it can be just that, a catalyst.
I love this post. I'm so glad to hear someone say you don't have to have a thick skin. I mean, sure, don't throw a tantrum over a rejection to the person's face, but go home and howl if you want to. I firmly believe, as you said, that a writer needs to be open and receptive to good and bad.
I think sometimes the need to be professional and confident leads people to think they shouldn't even *feel* disappointment or hurt, especially after reaching a certain level or publishing a certain number of books or hitting the bestseller list or whatever. But our feelings are our feelings, and success doesn't confer magical immunity to pain.
Jenn, I think you make a huge point here--that sometimes we are so affected by things that have nothing to do with the rejection or the critique. There are days that, if I get a no-thanks from an agent--it feels like part of the process, and I file it under that mental folder, and move on. And then there are days where, if I could resist, it would be the best thing for me to not even OPEN that email, even if there is a chance that it's actually a yes, because if it's a no, it'll be the last straw and turn into something much bigger and worse.

And then, yes, it's not good to get TOO distant from the feelings. It's hard enough to reach them when we're writing, to connect with what our characters may be going through. If we push our own emotions further away, we just make that much more work for ourselves.

Nice post. :)

In fact, we can even use pain, when it comes up, in our writing. It's easy for writers to show how a character might experience rejection, for example!
I agree -- it so depends on when I get the rejections (my mood even in that moment I read it) as to how I react.
In many ways, it's nice to know it's not wholly determined by external circumstances, but just as much by internal circumstances!
Nicely said!
Thank you!
Thanks for this wonderful post. Beautifully said!
Thanks, Jama!
All right, you little mind reader, you've done it again. I'm not even to the query letter, but some of the critiques I've received could have been shattering. Now I save that group for last and don't check the email until I'm sure I'm in a good place. It's nice to know I'm normal. It's also refreshing to believe I've made some serious progress in the meantime with the aid of other writers groups.
Feedback--whether critique, rejection/acceptance, or review--is about the book and not the author. But we put so much of ourselves into the work that it's natural to have some emotional investment. Ultimately, we move beyond that first reaction into the "work mind," where we can make that book or the next one better!
A different sort of example, but the same point. When I was at ALA, I approached Holly Black to introduce myself and to tell her how thrilled M was with WHITE CAT. Because truly, M really loved that book, and was so pleased to find something different out there.

And Holly Black - she of bestseller lists and whatnot - told me how very pleased she was to hear it (and she was genuinely aflutter) and how nervous she's been about the book. It was fun to write, because it was so different, but it was extra-nervewracking, too. And I walked away from our short conversation thinking something I've thought before when talking with writer friends who have known success on the NY Times list and have won MAJOR awards: it never changes. You never stop worrying about how people will judge you and your books (not necessarily in that order). And somehow, that makes me feel more okay about it all.
Oh, yes. I think people sometimes believe that once you reach a certain level of success, you're immune to reader response, but I suspect that is not true! [I'll let you know for sure if I ever hit one of the lists or win a major award. ;-)]
I hope for the first and fully expect the second for you.
From your lips to the Universe's ears ...

but seriously, your respect for my work means a lot.
And also, you need to take notes on your own success to further this experiment!
Lovely post, thank for this. It's so true that we can actually make ourselves feel worse because we're not reacting the way we think we should be.
Thank you for weighing in!
Excellent advice - especially the part about reacting to feedback based on the source and remaining open to all experiences.
I don't believe that creative people ever develop skins thick enough to avoid feeling the sting of rejection. All that we create is so much a part of us that it's hard not to take what we perceive as negative feedback, personally.
We celebrate when our work hits the mark, and it's only natural to feel disappointed when it doesn't.

But the good thing is, there are a lot of goals out there, and even if we miss one, we are likely to reach others.


Thank you!


Thank you for this post. I too have found that I compound my negative feelings by beating myself up for having them. But it is reassuring to hear from a professional writer that rejection still stings. And to recognize that how I feel about any given rejection has a lot to do with how I'm feeling otherwise at the moment I receive it.

Sometimes I'm able to be grateful for rejections. I can say--Wow that person took the time to respond--that's awesome! Although, I also look for hidden feelings underneath that, and acknowledge them too. It's okay to feel hurt.

Best, Julie

Re: Thank you!

Glad this was helpful!
I always say 'If the rejection didn't hurt, you probably shouldn't have sent it there in the first place.'
I should've known you would come up with something so apt and well-said!


So true!

Thanks for this. I usually read input from beta readers or editors the instant it comes in, then mull for days hoping to understand the issue that is pulling them out of the story. Sometimes what they say is just a trail of clues to the real problem.

kathleen duey

Re: So true!

And sometimes they know what's wrong, but not how to fix it, or they know something's wrong but identify the wrong thing--I find that's one reason different perspectives are helpful.
It's perfect timing for me to come across this post on your journal. I've written on my own blog about the need for a writer/author to *bounce*, i.e. back from all the inevitable knocks along the way. Especially when, like me, you're still seeking representation/publication. Thing is, it's easy to say these things, but when the rejections keep clattering through my letterbox, it still bites. So thanks - I feel heartened.
Yes, paradoxically, sometimes we need a moment to say, "Ouch, that stung," before we can charge ahead with renewed optimism!