A Thicker Skin?

It’s one of the first pieces of advice new authors tend to hear – you’re going to need a thick skin. I watched with interest a facebook debate yesterday, talking about harsh criticism and a tough industry, stinging knockbacks, and critiques that rip your work to shreds. A surprising number of folks saw these as good and useful things. On an egroup this week there was also some talk about the more brutal end of being reviewed, and what that does to an author. So you’re a creative soul and you want to share your work with the world? Grow a thick skin.

What makes us creative? There are undoubtedly a lot of answers, but it’s very hard to make art in any form unless you posses some sensitivity. Creative types, bard souls put work out into the world because we have something to share, a desire to be heard, perhaps a need for affirmation. Sure, there are people who are also doing it for ego, and a desire to be famous, but it’s hard work creating something and finding a way to share it. Anyone who gets that far has to be worthy of some respect just for trying.

It’s a learning process. Every creative person, when they first start putting work out there, will not be as good as they have the potential to be. There is always more to learn. Editors, reviewers, agents and so forth often have more experience, and there’s scope to learn from them. Being over-protective of what you’ve made and unable to hear where you need to develop, is a recipe for failure. But that doesn’t mean you have to give up on the integrity of your own work and let an editor make you sound just like everyone else. And some will try. There’s a balancing act to find between commercial viability, and artistic integrity, and it’s a challenging balance to strike, but it can be done.

I also work on the editing side. I’ve had fleeting encounters with authors who do not believe that their work needs anything doing to it. I’m aware of prima donnas who won’t be told and who cry ‘but this is my style’ when you try and explain that really, the mixed metaphors are not a good thing. Again there is a balance to find. If you are an arty person, then yes, odds are you are a sensitive soul and you may have some artistic temperament, but when you start dabbling with the business end, with the industries who might or might not pay you, a change is needed. Like it or not, you become a business person with a product to refine and sell. A cool head is handy.

All of that said, I strongly resist any suggestion that it’s good for creative types to be ripped to shreds by anyone who decides they know better. The pressure to ‘grow a thicker skin’ is not a healthy one. The industrial end of creativity may find it more convenient to make us behave like cogs in a machine, but we are not cogs, we are people. Industries of all kinds, institutions and anywhere that treats people as numbers, can be guilty of this. There’s a culture of expecting people to take whatever heartless crap is dished out, and to label as immature, over sensitive or otherwise neurotic anyone who cannot tolerate being bullied.

It is possible to tackle flaws in a piece of work without totally demoralising its creator. It is possible to nurture talent without ripping anything, or anyone apart. Having your work verbally annihilated is not a necessary rite of passage.  It is as well if you can learn from bad experiences, but they should not be celebrated. People who set themselves up as authority figures do not always know best. I once had an editor who edited out my subplot and tried to change the description ‘sex fiend’ into ‘sex kitten’ making nonsense of the entire story. She thought that bullying me and telling me I needed a thicker skin was the way to go when I disagreed with her. I protested to the publisher and got someone decent to work with.

I may be naive, but I believe that we should, as far as is humanly possible, treat each other like people, regardless of the circumstances in which we are working. Start from the assumption that the person you are working with is a decent human being. Treat them with respect. There may be a flaw in their work, or they may have just given you a shitty review, but they remain a person, and the world would be a radically better place if more of us could remember that. Then no one would need to grow a thicker skin, which could be a really good thing.

Fellow Author Marc Vun Kannon has blogged on a similar theme – http://authorguy.wordpress.com/2010/06/23/what-do-you-think/ so do check out his thoughts too.

10 thoughts on “A Thicker Skin?”

  1. Hi there

    I think this is so true! I am myself a creative person and when you create from the heart, you put something of yourself into the creation. When someone utterly crushes you into smitherines, they are smashing a part of you. To create for business, is to utilise the hardened, me thinking ego, which does not create from the place of the heart or child. Then you just get rehashes of all that is out there instead of the deep stuff. Anyway, that is it from my perspective, though thankfully I have not put myself into the burning hands of reviewers yet!
    However, you are absolutely right, our overly critical society is abusive. There is no other name for it. All these shows and magazines that absolutely insult people and laugh at them are a hideous sign of the times. I have worked with people with addiction and all the problems they come with for many years but if I treated them as a ‘junky!’ we would never build a good relationship, there would be no chance for growth on any side. When we listen and truly hear, we can talk honestly and openly, from this something can grow . In the same way, if a creative person is treated with respect, they won’t have their back up immediately and be defensive. Sometimes a little respect and acceptance goes along way in all things.
    There is an infinite amount of research on using positive and constructive criticism in a supportive and productive way, always encouraging the person and focusing on what they have achieved already. This enables the person to develop their skills. One does have to wonder if the thrill for some critics is actually more about ego to ego/power struggle rather than about promoting and developing talent.

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  2. I agree! Telling someone to grow a thicker skin is putting the onus on them, when they’re the one who just wanted to share their work. I do believe that there is a difference between criticism and feedback, and that if more people opted for the latter instead of the former, even the stubborn “Oh but it’s perfect the way it is” types would be more inclined to listen. People need to learn how to make their work as good as it can possibly be, but they’ll only do so if they feel it’s worth it…and it’s difficult to believe it’s worth pursuing creative endeavours if they’re just constantly mauled.

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  3. It’s definitely a business, and if an author approaches it that way, then the skin will come along. Like many others, I went through several rounds of rejections with my first novel before it found a home. I was lucky enough to receive feedback each time to help me make changes that eventually led to its publication.

    But I also think it’s the luck of the draw. I just finished edits for my 3rd novel and, while the feeback part was good, the editing put in more mistakes than it took out. If this was my first novel and I followed all the changes, I would have put out there something that misused commas and dashes, and something that changed the spelling of one of my character’s names. So, I’ve learned that common sense and a good knowledge of grammar rules is definitely an asset. I know I’m not writing anything life-changing, but I still have pride in my work.

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  4. Talking on facebook on this topic, it occured to me that the vast majority of my agent, editor and publisher experiences have been fine, if not downright helpful (couple of notable exceptions, but they are a small minority). The most destructive folk seem, in my experience, to be self appointed ‘authorities’, who really have no justification.

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  5. I do think people need to grow a thick skin but not because of publishing, but because of those who mingle in it.

    I was warned when I got into this business that I needed a thick skin. I even joined HUGE writing groups that had us submit pieces of our work just so they could go through and suggest, BUT DO SO IN A SNARKY, HORRIBLE way, because THEY claimed this is what would happen to us once we were professionally pubbed or once we started submitting to agents, etc.

    WRONG. Least not in my universe.

    In all honesty, I have submitted to thousands of places and I have had thousands of rejections like everyone else. But not ONCE did a PROFESSIONAL Agent or Publisher rip me to shreds. And you know what? If they did, then I’d be the one rejecting them. I won’t work for any boss that degrades me…period.

    I am with Noble Romance Publishing (Dare to be Different) now and I was shaking in my shoes when I signed my first book with them. I heard Jill Noble carried a whip with salt and razors in it (concerning edits etc) and that by the end of the day she’d have me dizzy in tears because she didn’t play around. Well, part of that is true. She doesn’t play around. She walks a hard line when it comes to editing and she wants the books at Noble to be equal with or better than those in Traditional pubs. She finds out what we authors are good at, and then she demands it. She doesn’t let us sell ourselves short.

    But not once did she snark me. Not once did she degrade me or make me feel stupid. And when I worked with the other editor assigned to my book, (because we get more than one) Alison, not once did she snark me either OR insult me. Now she went through my book a gazillion times to where she has certain things memorized now lol…and we did an official edit like four or five times, and she forced me to explain things and so forth, but not once did she brow beat me over it.

    SO in truth, I think the only time Authors need a ‘thick skin’ is mostly dealing with other authors, certain writing groups, and certain editors that should NOT be editing. Then there are contests where people feel that you have paid them your 25 dollar submission fee to rip them a new one??? lol

    Its all of that, that writers need a thick skin. Because THEN you need to see through it and turn your back on what has been said.

    My best advice is to research review sites. Read past reviews. If they are KNOWN to be negative, take note as to HOW they are negative. Are they being smart asses about it? Or are they trying to give constructive criticism as a reader and what stumped them personally??? Do they ALSO STATE THE POSITIVE of the book? Is it well balanced? Who are the reviewers? See, thats the hard part. We don’t know. A lot of times Authors take other names and review. Now some of those Authors do a great job, but then others, well, they attack books for the flaws they see or fear in themselves. So maybe don’t hold stock in reviews at all, ya know?

    And then Authors need to step back and CALMLY look at the negative while ALSO processing the positive. I’ve seen authors so wound up, so paranoid that a review site is going to slaughter them, so mentally prepared that they don’t even see the positive.

    But I have also seen review sites who seem to make their fame by being sarcastic, horrible reviewers.

    So my advice is, people, stop submitting your work to them. And if they BUY your book and review it, just never fly over there and look and be happy that you made a sale. And if you DO LOOK, think of it as Bad publicity/good publicity type deal—its ‘all’ publicity.

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  6. I really like this post! I think that those who are creative do need to toughen a little bit…kind of like the calluses one develops when learning to play the guitar. Just enough so that it doesn’t hurt to play, but not so much that you don’t feel the strings!

    I agree that being ripped to shreds does nothing useful. Well, except to show who to avoid! I’m glad that I can take constructive criticism, something that will make my stories ultimately improve, without stubbornly thinking that I am the queen of all I survey, LOL. But an artist needs to be confident in the integrity of his or her work, and what makes it unique from all the other works!

    Thanks for such a great post Bryn!

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  7. Brynn,

    Excellent post. I agree with you. No one needs to be that hateful to anyone. I think the general tendency towards mean is a pervasive disease running rampant in many cultures today and it is unacceptable in my book.

    It is one thing to offer suggestions for change, it is another to say THIS IS WRONG and yet offer no ideas or alternatives to make a piece better. Even boot camp instructors, despite their harshness, still teach, instruct and build up their team members into a polished product.

    I am a part time editor and when I edit, I offer suggestions only. It is incumbent upon the editor to have the knowledge base and skills to point the author (especially a newbie) in the correct direction to aid them in producing their best work. It is incumbent upon the author to learn a publisher’s house rules and what an editor can teach.

    When I edit my intent is to assist an author toward their dream of publication. The only time I brook no argument is when I see glaring mistakes in grammar or syntax, but I approach even that with calm and humor.

    At no time do I try to change the author’s voice. It’s their voice that makes them unique. It is not my novel, therefore I am not there to rewrite it to the way I think it should be, I am there to assist the author to reach maximum potential.

    At least, that’s my approach anyway. 🙂

    Erin

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  8. Totally agree with you on the editing Erin – aside from small typo fixes, I tend to just flag word repeats, or places where I don’t think it flows and a good author can work with that. editing should be a supprotive process about polishing a book to best effect, not sandblasting the skin off the author. (most editors I’ve encountered are very good though.)

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