On the Thickness of Skin

One of the mantras many writers are taught is that we need a thick skin. It’s often delivered with a sort of pride, as the speaker is assumed to have developed a thick hide and is therefore impervious to the pain of critique, criticism, or rejection.

I just think that’s such bullshit. It’s a harmful myth that sets new writers back, makes them feel bad about themselves, and blinds us to our strengths and weaknesses. We need to stop propagating it.

Emotion is what draws us to reading and writing. It’s why we care about story, about characters. Everyone. There isn’t any reader who doesn’t come to the page to find some sort of emotional pull. I’m not just talking about the warm fuzzy emotions like romance and hope, either. Fear, thrill, disgust, lust, dread, curiosity, triumph, valor: they are all emotional. They are why we read and why we write. What’s more, most of us who write are drawn to it because we’re intuitive in some way. Sensitive, astute, empathetic, observant, what have you: we “get it.” You don’t have to be a mushy person to be a keen feeler. Even the most graphic, explicit horror writers I know are good at what they do because they render emotion vividly on the page.

So, long story short, and forgive some overgeneralization… writers are big feelers, and—more importantly—we need to be. Our depth of internal life is one of our greatest strengths!

Why, then, do we tell novice writers to turn off their emotions?

Sure, the creative process is brutal. The path to publication is brutal. The industry is brutal. Critique hurts. Rejection hurts. Failure fucking hurts.

And it should.

You care a lot about your craft or you wouldn’t keep doing it. You work hard. You struggle through doubt and stalls and revisions and non-responses and all kinds of human muck so you can keep creating these things you care about. How on earth could you not care when the reaction to those things is negative instead of positive?

You are a human being. Perhaps, hopefully, you are a human being with a higher than average level of sensitivity. You will, occasionally, (I’m sorry) FEEL THINGS. Do not panic. This is normal.

You are a human being. Perhaps, hopefully, you are a human being with a higher than average level of sensitivity. You will, occasionally, (I’m sorry) FEEL THINGS. Do not panic. This is normal.

You can’t selectively numb, ignore, or deny emotions. Numbing something is going to bleed over into other things. You start numbing the responses to your work and you’ll eventually end up numbing out the good, human, juicy things that feed your work. Not worth it, if you ask me.

So when some writer with more experience sees your natural human reaction to failure or disappointment and tells you that you need to ‘grow a thicker skin,’ I kindly invite you to ignore them. Your skin is absolutely fine. It’s healthy and flexible and it holds in all your organs so they don’t go everywhere at once. (That metaphor got away from me a little.)

More often than not, what I see writers doing when they mean to take this advice is trying to convince themselves that they don’t care when they (obviously) do (and should). The end result is writers trying to ignore or lie their way out of emotions, and when we ignore emotions they end up playing us. What do I mean by that? An example.

James takes his new short story into a critique group, where he gets mixed feedback. One comment, in particular, really stings. Someone told him that his protagonist, a fighter pilot, doesn’t ring true. It’s not authentic, they said. Well, considering James once was a fighter pilot, that pisses him off. Naturally, right? Who is that random writer who’s never piloted anything to tell James that his actual experience-based character isn’t accurate?

Trying to ‘thicken his skin,’ James brushes off the comment. That guy was obviously wrong. He shouldn’t care, so he won’t. No need to dwell. Of course, he will dwell some, the thought occasionally popping up when he works or as he’s falling asleep, and it makes him mad (a façade for hurt) but he shuts that down because he ‘needs a thicker skin.’ Only novices get mad about feedback.

The problem here? James likely just missed a very big, very helpful indication that his story has a weak spot he’s unaware of. In other words, our emotional reactions show us where our blind spots are. Maybe James knows all of the details of being a fighter pilot but hasn’t actually done a successful job putting the emotional details on the page. Maybe, having been one himself, he’s unaware of the gap between his inherent knowledge of that existence and what the average reader might not understand. So sure, he got the hard details perfect, but that doesn’t mean he has effectively captured the experience on the page.

If he’s busy thickening his skin, he probably never will. If he allows himself to be vulnerable to how he feels (which, btw, takes way more courage than letting things bounce off), he can analyze why this particular comment (or rejection, or review, or whatever) hurts more than most and actually address it. Your so-called weakness suddenly becomes a useful tool in building your strengths.

We can’t be aware of what we don’t allow ourselves to feel.

What’s motivating us, whose opinions we care most about, which things sting, which comments haunt, which problems bother us most—those are all data. They are useful bits of information that you can mine to make your stories better, to make your career stronger, and to ultimately find more success in achieving your goals. But you can only get to that data if you’re not blocking it out for the sake of looking tougher.

Some caveats. Forcing yourself to face bad feelings doesn’t mean you have to give them free reign any time they pop up. No one wants to walk around with open wounds all the time, and no one should have to constantly face down demons. That’s okay. You’re allowed to choose when and where (and yes, even what) you look in the face.

The more rejections you get, the smaller each hurt will be. Not because you’ve grown a thicker skin (i.e. developed denial superpowers), but because each one takes up a smaller and smaller ratio of your concern.

Another thing I hear writers worry about is emotional fatigue. I’m not going to lie, that is absolutely a thing. Finding balance is hard! We all have to find our own, but here’s the good news: it really does get easier. The longer you do this, the more adept you’ll become at all the facets of the job. You’ll get braver in acknowledging your negative reactions. You’ll get better at plumbing them for information. You’ll learn perspective, and which reactions are big, small, or how long they will stay.

Rejections, for example, will always hurt some—at least the big ones that you really get invested in. If they don’t hurt, you either don’t care (in which case why would you bother?) or are telling yourself you don’t care (in which case you’re blocking out useful stuff). Neither is good. So you care, and it hurts. Welcome to the club. The more rejections you get, the smaller each hurt will be. Not because you’ve grown a thicker skin (i.e. developed denial superpowers), but because each one takes up a smaller and smaller ratio of your concern. If you get dozens or even hundreds of rejections in a year, they can’t matter as much on an individual basis. You realize how long it takes to get some stories accepted, how fickle editors can be, how much luck and timing is involved, how capable you are of continuing to write new and better stories, and on and on. Your skin doesn’t actually grow thicker. The dream magazine that sends that “almost, but no cigar” letter will still sting. But the hurt will grow smaller and smaller overall because you’ll get better at seeing the big picture and framing emotion in its rightful proportion.

Another thing that will help with the hard stuff over time is learning to separate critique/rejection of your work from critique/rejection of you. Yes, your work might be deeply personal. Yes, you should care deeply about it. But it's not actually you. You made it, and it's yours, but it isn't you. So while it may hurt when someone hits a soft spot, you'll learn to put that hurt into its proper place: a thing you've made (and usually can still change or improve on), not you as a person. Great people make mediocre art all the time. Hell, great artists make crappy art sometimes. That's okay. Let the hurt hurt without making it a personal attack on you as a person or artist; it's just about the work. And when we feel when that hurts and why, we can fix the work.

Do more experienced authors care less? I don't think so. It just looks like they care less because they gain perspective, confidence, and practice in the ability of accepting the negative in order to utilize it toward positive. In other words, their skin is no thicker; they're just more adept at the process of processing. Luckily, that is something we can all work toward.

I think it’s time to retire the writer allegory of the thicker skin. I have never witnessed it to be a good, healthy, or sustainable thing. It chastises writers being honest about the emotions we all have, it encourages denial that obscures important knowledge, and it adds another barrier in strengthening our weaknesses.

The next time someone says you need a thicker skin? Shake it off and do what you need to do for yourself. You don’t owe anyone a façade of behavior. You’re braver than that.


Writers, have you been told you need a thicker skin? Do you think it’s a necessary part of the job, a blatant myth, or a harmful parable passed on to new writers? Discussion welcome!

Annie Neugebauer

Column by Annie Neugebauer

Annie Neugebauer likes to make things as challenging as possible for herself by writing horror, poetry, literary, and speculative fiction—often blended together in ways ye olde publishing gods have strictly forbidden. She’s a Bram Stoker Award-nominated author with work appearing and forthcoming in more than a hundred publications, including magazines such as Cemetery Dance, Apex, and Black Static, as well as anthologies such as Year’s Best Hardcore Horror Volume 3 and #1 Amazon bestseller Killing It Softly. She’s the webmaster for the Poetry Society of Texas, an active member of the Horror Writers Association, and in addition to LitReactor, a columnist for Writer Unboxed. She’s represented by Alec Shane of Writers House. She needs to make new friends because her current ones are tired of hearing about House of Leaves. You can visit her at www.AnnieNeugebauer.com for news, poems, organizational tools for writers, and more.

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Comments

Christina Re's picture
Christina Re from the United States is reading The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin June 7, 2018 - 8:36am

Annie, thanks for articulating something that has been on my mind for some time now. I run a writer's group and I am going to share this article with them. I think our emotions are a powerful tool. If we can learn how to use and direct them properly, we can embrace them and harness that power. I have never liked shoving my feelings into a closet. I think most writers would be thankful for the chance to see their progression with clarity and truth.

AnnieNeugebauer's picture
AnnieNeugebauer from Texas is reading Apex Magazine Issue 101 June 7, 2018 - 1:15pm

That's great to hear, Christina--thank you! I like the phrase "harness that power" here; that feels like it exactly. I hope it helps your group some. I ran a group myself for years.