You hear it everywhere.
“If you’re going to be a writer, you’re going to have to grow a thick skin.”
“You are going to have to work on thickening that skin up.”
“I wanted to help her with her critique, but she’s too thin-skinned. I don’t want to waste my time.”
So, what is thick skin, anyway?
Let’s talk about art for a moment. Art is many things. It communicates. It uplifts. Art can open up a brand new world or show you a part of the world you didn’t know existed. Art is subjective. Not every viewer has the same experience. One person might view a painting by Mark Rothko and be transcended. Another might deem it ridiculous crap. A third might love it because it matches their couch.
The thing to remember is none of those people are wrong. There is no bottom-line truth in art; there are only people’s reactions to it and opinions about it. No opinion is wrong. One may or may not agree with it, but it isn’t wrong. Personally, Rothko’s paintings don’t do anything for me. It’s not because I am uneducated about the style or unenlightened as a person, those paintings simply don’t speak to me. Other people find them fascinating, and that’s okay. Art is subjunctive. That’s part of the joy of all art, that each person has their own unique experience.
Art is personal to the artist as well. Honestly, no one sweats and slaves over a piece of art because they think it will suck. We worry over our art, pour our souls into it, and hope that some small piece of that labor of love will shine through to those that view it.
Then someone says it sucks.
Oh, it’s going to happen. No matter how long you work to improve your art, no matter how much you master it, it’s simply not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. That’s all right. No one piece of art is going to please everyone. It’s not personal.
This is where that thick skin comes in. Writers are artists. They slave over those words. When the time comes for critiques or reviews, the negative ones can feel like someone is taking a knife to your baby.
That isn’t what’s happening. Almost all of the time, reviewers and people offering critique are doing it out of a spirit of being helpful. They want to help the writer improve their work. They want to help future readers make good choices about where to spend their book budget. Sure, there’s the odd troll on Goodreads or Amazon that hops around leaving one-star reviews just to cause trouble, but they are few. That person that leaves an in depth critique explaining how all of your characters sounded the same and they couldn’t tell who was speaking, they are trying to be helpful.
When someone is criticizing your art, it can feel like they are criticizing you. Writers who have developed a thick skin are able to remind themselves that it isn’t personal. They are able to take a small step back and view the critique objectively, without letting their emotions make them defensive.
“They think all the characters sound the same? Well, what do they know? Who are they to tell me how to write? They think I’m stupid!”
“Huh. I didn’t think all the characters sounded the same, but that’s the third comment I’ve gotten that mentions it. I should take another look at my manuscript and see if there are improvements I can make to my dialogue.”
Which of the above is the thick-skinned writer? Pretty obvious.
Now, having a thick skin does not mean that every time one reads a critique, they run to make changes to their art. It means that you set the emotional reaction aside, consider the suggestion with an open mind, and decide for yourself if the suggestion has merit. Then, and only then, do you consider how best to make any changes necessary.
Why should you grow thick skin? That’s simple. How can your art improve if you don’t know where the issues are? A thin-skinned writer is a writer that isn’t improving their craft, and that’s a shame.
When working with people who are offering critique of your work, be gracious. I saw a bad example of this on a forum today. The writer in question asked for opinions, got one they did not like, and jumped all over the person making the suggestion. The writer was rude and negative. Listen, it’s all right if you don’t agree with a suggestion. Not every suggestion is going to be right for your art. However, reacting in an emotional and negative way is not going to help your cause. The emotional reaction will keep you from seeing possible merit in suggestions, and the defensiveness will dissuade others from wanting to help you. You gain nothing by pissing off the people trying to help. If the suggestion isn’t useful to you, thank the person who made it, and then ignore it if you want. Got that? Thank them and move along. Believe me, they don’t need a dissertation on why you think they are wrong. If something is unclear, feel free to ask questions and clarify, but don’t tell folks they are wrong.
Because opinions are never wrong. Also, it makes you look like a dick.
When it comes to reviews of your published work, there is one easy rule: don’t read them. I’m serious, don’t read them. Okay, if you have to read them, the same rules apply. If many people are mentioning the same issue, you might have to do some re-writing. If it’s one person’s opinion, ignore it. Not everyone will like your work, and that’s okay.
If it’s an obvious flame, say a reviewer says you are a waste of oxygen and they want to burn your house down, you can report it to the moderators of wherever the review appears. Listen carefully here–it still might not be taken down. Reviews are rarely taken down, even if they contain threats, but a threat is one of the only reason’s it might be. Threats, racial slurs, etc, are the only reason to ask for a review to be taken down.
Never respond to reviews. It is neither necessary nor wanted and you run the risk of looking like a dick.
Let me repeat that, never respond to reviews. I don’t care what they said, I don’t care if they never finished the book, or missed a clear element, I don’t care. Never respond. No reader wants to think the author is lurking around, ready to jump on them, and being concerned with what they say. Reviews are for readers. Sure, authors with good reviews take advantage, as well they should. Just remember that they aren’t there for you, they are there to serve other readers.
The only exception to ‘never respond to reviews’ is in places like fanfic archives, where it is a tradition that readers expect and enjoy feedback from the writer.
What’s the takeaway from all this? Grow and cherish your thick skin. Wear it like a badge of honor. Put your work out there for critique, and when the emotional reaction happens (and it will) step back, take a breath, and look at the issue objectively. Consider what is being said, and decide for yourself whether to make changes. It takes some time and practice, but your art will be better for it.