A Writer’s Thick Skin: Do We Need One?

There’s been a lot of talk on the Internet lately about the need to have “a thick skin” if you are going to be a writer. After all, being a writer comes with a ton of rejection and a necessary amount of critique. Nothing you write will ever be perfect, and nothing you write will be loved by everyone who reads it. These facts are part of the job description.

Kristen Lamb tells us we need a thick skin, while Rachelle Gardner makes the case that we don’t. Jody Hedlund ignores the thickness of skin altogether and talks about the unnecessary shame involved in getting feedback.

They all have good points, but I think the key to developing a so-called thick skin isn’t in strengthening your epidermis, but in changing the way we approach criticism and rejection. A thick skin simply means we can take a beating and keep on going—but have we learned anything worthwhile from the beating?

I didn’t always take criticism well. I mean, I never screamed at anyone or anything like that, but it hurt a lot when my work wasn’t up to snuff. The first time my Master’s degree advisor ripped apart my work, I was nearly in tears. I suspect that part of this reaction is that I was a very good student in school. I was used to getting all A’s. To be told that my work was not an A was rather unprecedented, and I had no coping mechanism in place.

So I learned to cope. I turned around the way I looked at the red marks splashed on the page. Instead of seeing them as glaring testaments to my worthlessness, I looked at them as a challenge: every red mark was a place I could improve my story. Once I changed my outlook from a negative (“I suck”) to a positive (“look at how much better my story can be”), the ouch factor of criticism lessened considerably.

This doesn’t mean that when I get a bleeding critique back I do a dance of joy. I get down in the dumps like everyone else. The task can seem monumental. Overwhelming. But in the end it becomes exciting, because each change is an opportunity to learn something new about our craft, and the results of the changes are instantaneous: you can actually feel the story growing stronger.

I admit that revision fits my personality. I love to learn—and honing our writing offers endless opportunities to try something new, to push ourselves higher, or to master a nuance of the craft. I am also by nature a troubleshooter: I love to fix things. When I was a video editor, I was the go-to gal when a system wasn’t working. Tracking down and fixing the problem thrilled me. The same goes for my writing. Figuring out what the problem is, and then finding the solution is an adrenaline rush.

So, back to the thick skin. Do you need one? I don’t think so. Becoming impervious brings with it the risk of becoming immune to the helpful criticism as well as the bad (and there is bad criticism out there that should simply be ignored). I think Jody hit it on the head that our task is not to grow rhino skin, but to change the way we approach criticism altogether.

What do you think? Do we need a thick skin to survive as writers or not?

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