Thickening Skin: 6 Tips for Taking Criticism
Beginning writers are often told that they need to develop a thick skin. No one bothers to tell them how this is done or what exactly having "thick skin" means. Let me try to help. To start, here's a working definition:
Having a thick skin means you are able to: stare down criticism and make it work for you; set aside your ego for long enough that your pride doesn't disrupt your work; and listen to criticism, understand it, and then completely ignore it when necessary.
But how is this thick skin earned? Here are six tips for developing that extra layer of mental armor and making criticism work for you.
1. Accept that criticism will never be easy.
About a week ago I was trying a new piece at a local poetry slam. My poem was about Scylla and Charybdis and shame and beauty magazines. I was excited to try it out—and then the feature poet did an "anti-poem" attacking the category my piece belonged to. I was thrown off completely. My performance was lousy and the scores I received were worse. And, well ... it's been a long time since I've placed last at a slam.
And yeah, despite my years of practice in taking criticism, I was pissed off. I didn't like having my work dismissed before it had been presented. I didn't like the volatile, shock-value attack of the anti-poem. And it was hard to sit there for the rest of the competition: I did so because it seemed like the courteous thing to do.
I don't care how long you've been writing: There are times when "courteous" will be the best you can muster. No matter how much you separate your ego from the work, there will be criticisms that get through: you'll feel hurt, disappointed, frustrated, misunderstood, or plain old pissed off. You get better at avoiding these pitfalls of criticism and better at dealing with them when they can't be dodged, but the suckage never fully goes away.
So don't pretend that you can face criticism all the time. Some days you just won't be up for it. And don't freak out if you're hurt by someone criticizing your work. It doesn't mean you're not up to being a "real writer." We all get bruised: It's part of the cost of doing business. But if you accept that cost, you can focus on how to mitigate it and how you can best use your investment.
2. Make it about the story.
If you want to write a good story (or a good essay or a good poem or a good Tweet), criticism can help you. Any feedback you receive will help you better understand how your audience is responding to your work. Criticism can be devastating if the success or failure of a single written work is seen as a reflection of your value as a writer, but if you adopt a growth mindset you can allow criticism to work in your favor.
Your ego is an important part of your existence. Hell, it's one of the cardinal virtues for writers. Don't pretend you can abandon your pride completely—but don't put your ego on the line every time a work is subject to criticism. Approach feedback with the knowledge that everything you write can be improved and that criticism will help make your work better. Ultimately, your writing isn't about you: It's about the story you're bringing into the world.
I've said it before and I'll say it again: It's a workshop, not a wankshop.
3. Work to understand.
When you're hurt by feedback, it's easy to retreat from the criticism by trying to invalidate it. But if you're trying to figure out if criticism is "correct" or "incorrect," you're missing the point. Instead, aim to understand what criticism reveals about the reader's experience with your work. To make a work more effective, you'll need to understand the experience of different readers.
For example, I had a flash fiction piece that used several Catholic terms ("rosary," "absolution," etc.). Some of my readers were lost. Instead of saying, "Oh no, this isn't working!!11!," I asked myself why it wasn't working for those particular readers. I asked them follow-up questions. I got more readers so I could base my conclusions on the feedback of a broader audience.
In this case, the problem was my assumption of what background knowledge most readers would possess. When I discovered that this assumption was faulty, it was easy enough to resolve by adding contextual elements that helped readers understand the terms even if they'd never encountered them before.
4. Try everything.
I have a rule for feedback: I try everything that readers suggest (within reason). Once I've written up the new version, I'll read through it and see if I like it any better than my original. If so, great! If not, there's no loss.
In the era of typewriters, this may have been impractical, but these days you can easily save a new draft of your work and revert to the old version as you please. And honestly, I've been surprised by which advice has worked out. There have been times when I was fiercely loyal to a paragraph but, sticking to my rule, cut the segment and found that I preferred the trimmed-down version. And there have been plenty of times when suggested revisions simply didn't work for me. I've had scuffles with editors who insisted on a change that I'd tried out but didn't like.
At the end of the day, you get to decide what goes into the final version—but there's no harm in conducting a quick experiment. It keeps you flexible as a writer, keeps your work from stagnating, and makes it easier to take criticism. Each piece of feedback gives you new avenues for experimentation, and no one can force you to keep changes that you don't like.
5. Some people aren't your audience. Others are just ass-holes.
Let me catch this before it detours dangerously. I've seen too many people walk out of creative writing classes with a self-assured smile, telling themselves it doesn't matter that people didn't like their work: It's all a matter of opinion anyway.
Yes, it definitely is. It's all a matter of opinion, and if the collective opinion of your readership is that your story didn't work, then your story won't have much impact in the world. To make a story more effective, you'll need to win over the opinions of a broader audience.
Every. Last. Reader. Counts. That being said, you'll have work that resonates with your target audience but not with other groups. There are people who will dislike your fantasy story no matter what. There are others who will hate you for using metaphors. There are people who dislike any writer who uses a semicolon. Work to understand what sort of audience a reader represents and be willing to decide whether that audience matters to you. In the end, you can't please everyone, and you're allowed to not give a damn.
Other times you'll run into criticism that isn't about giving insight into your work. Now, don't assume that a reader being an ass-hole means that their opinion isn't of use: You can take the time to understand their viewpoint, and their ass-hole nature may help you cut through the pleasantries and find that understanding more quickly.
But other times, the reader is just an ass-hole. They don't like your work and won't (or can't) express the reasons why, and their feedback will often come in the form of a personal attack. These trolls have two natural habitats: The internet, where anonymity allows them to thrive; and writing workshops, where insecure writers "prove" their superiority by bashing the work of others. Remember, it's far easier to tear something down than it is to build something of value. These destructive trolls are a disease. Don't let them in.
6. Stop being such a romantic.
There are several common myths that make criticism more difficult to handle. First, we have the myth of good writing. If you buy into the idea that fundamentally "good writing" exists—that there's a template out there in the universe that describes what makes written work good or bad—then any criticism of your work becomes a reflection of whether you are "good enough."
The problem is, we can never say that a work is essentially good. We can only say that it's good for something. For most writers, that "good for" is "good for impacting readers." By thinking of work as effective or ineffective rather than as good or bad, you can focus on increasing the impact of your work. Accepting criticism—and really listening to it—is vital to this process.
Second, we have the myth of the natural writer. That inspiration is a supernatural gift. That you're born with a set amount of creativity, with your creative potential showing up much like your height. That you shouldn't write "if it doesn't come bursting out of you" (thank you, Bukowski). That Shakespeare wrote from the heart and never blotted out a single word.
Here's the truth: There is no natural writer. Inspiration is beautiful, but it's a process of the mind and a product of hard work. Creativity isn't like your height: It's a muscle that can be trained. The advice from Bukowski I mentioned? Yeah. He was an alcoholic ass-hat who spent most of his life not writing. And Shakespeare did revise, by the way—and even if he "never blotted out a single word," I side with Ben Jonson: "Would he had blotted a thousand!"
Your work improves as you invest in it. You become a more effective writer with practice. You learn to reach more people and make more accurate assumptions about your readership. Facing criticism is how you gain these skills. Facing criticism the right way is part of what makes growth possible. Facing criticism again and again is part of what thickens your skin. Yes, thick skin comes with a high price. It can be hard to set your ego aside, hard to accept a bruise, hard to listen patiently when your pride is squirming inside of you—but if the story matters, if your voice matters, then thick skin is worth the investment.
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