Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
zette@sff.net

Developing a Thick Skin: 
How to Accept Criticism

By Betty L. Meshack
2004, Betty L. Meshack


I'm sure your mom, like mine, taught you, "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all."  Unfortunately, during childhood, other children did not have the benefit of my mother's advice, or of her trusty and quicker-than-lightning index finger and thumb which, painfully and with regularity, enforced her edicts on the fleshy part of my upper arms. 

So when the inevitable evaluations by other children of, inter alia, my hair, my clothes, my size, my speech patterns,  and my grades were "thumbs down," and I came running to her for solace, her advice was, "Stick and stones may break your bones, but words will never hurt you.  Let it roll down your back as if you never heard it.  You are all right.  You're my baby."  Great advice to instill a modicum of self-esteem in a little girl from South Central, right?  Sure it was, although the scar tissue from the barbs exists to this day; echoes and reverberations from the teasing and rejection are often replayed mentally at the most inopportune times. 

I am my own worst critic.  Of course, the healed-over wounds are a part of what makes me the woman I am and the writer I am becoming now.  My mother was also one who frequently paraphrased the old saying, "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen."  Her alternative formulation on this theme was, "Are you gonna take your ball and go home?  Go back outside and knock the whey out of them." And she lived what she taught: "Just keep getting up in the morning." 

These sayings have been an aid and a comfort to me, and they have some relevance as well to my approach to writing evaluations.  After an extended pout, "I pick myself up, dust myself off, and start out all again."  I have come to appreciate critiques.  Helpful critiques point out deficiencies in my writing.  The questions asked by readers help to clarify my thoughts and strengthen my work.  Even so, the fact that I am not perfect has the tendency to grate on my perfectionist's nerves.  But I know I can always learn more and I accept that fact.  (Of course, I must keep repeating this to myself for it to become a core belief.)  Since I am not perfect, but I nonetheless want to sell my art to others, listening to my evaluators without my well-honed guard being up might make me a stronger writer.  In fact, I might become a published author. 

While not one of my mom's, I like this saying best:  "Living well is the best revenge" (attributed to George Herbert).  I'll paraphrase:  Writing well is the best revenge.  I can only write well if I learn from my mistakes.  I can better identify my mistakes if I learn to listen to others' evaluations of my work without being defensive, persnickety, or emotionally dependent on other's approval.  I can re-write, and in so doing, take into account what I've learned from the evaluations of others.  And even if I disagree with them, I can write better. 

How does one "keep getting up in the morning" when all she receives, she thinks, is discouragement?  Of course rejection letters from agents and publishers hurt.  And we, oh so secretly, think the rejections are deserved.  The art of writing and of, especially, sharing that writing with strangers or critics is perhaps one of the most courageous endeavors in which one can engage.  To write for public consumption is to share stray and often bizarre and unconventional thoughts; to disclose private yearnings; to hang one's own dirty laundry out in public, metaphorically speaking.  To ask for a "thumbs up" or a "thumbs down," undoubtedly, is brave.  The writer must be careful of her request; if you ask for a critique, you might get it, and it might not be fawning praise.  In fact, you don't want fawning praise; you will not grow as a writer if you can't learn by having mistakes forthrightly and honestly -- indeed, sometimes ruthlessly -- identified.  As my mother used to say, "A hard head makes a soft behind."  Well, a big ego can make for a cracked brain.

What do you do with the emotional feelings engendered by a "bad" critique, defined as an evaluation which points out shortcomings in your efforts to say exactly what you meant to say and suggestions to improve it, which does not seek to spare your feelings?  Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, M.D., wrote a seminal book, On Death and Dying (ISBN 0684839385, Scribner paperback ed.; see also http://www.elisabethkublerross.com/), in which she chronicled the stages of acceptance of death.  Close study of her treatise might lead writers to identify how they currently view evaluations, and to modify those views so that they can learn to accept and internalize the feedback so necessary for them to improve as writers. 

Adapting Dr. Kubler-Ross's paradigm for writing, there are five stages a writer often goes through upon receiving a less than glowing critique. They include denial -- "they misunderstood what I was trying to do in my piece" -- anger -- "they don't know what the heck they are talking about; #*@& them" -- bargaining -- "please God, help me to learn the proper placement of participles" -- depression -- "I'm no good; I'll never write; I'll never publish; I can't write.  Nobody likes me; everybody hates me.  Guess I'll eat a worm" -- and acceptance -- "hmm, that's interesting.  Maybe the evaluator has point.  I'll re-write and, in so doing, take into account the comments, or maybe not.  At least, like Scarlett, I'll think about it tomorrow."

"Thumbs down" evaluations hurt.  And often they stick in my mind because they're correct, and I thought I was better than to make stupid mistakes like that.  Hah!  Negative evaluations can be career stoppers because of the internalization process fragile psyches go through.  Child psychologists have long known that a child told often enough that he is no good will come to believe that he is no good, and act accordingly, especially if the taunting is done by a person  who occupies a position of trust, such as a parent, teacher or sibling.  So a writer who personalizes or internalizes a critique runs the risk of never writing again -- usually not the critique's intent. 

A beta reader or critiquer of a literary effort is in a similar position of trust, although he is clearly not your parent.  The writer trusts that the critiquer knows the proper mechanics of writing, including style, grammar, plotting, and characterization, and that the evaluator is intellectually honest, forthright, and thorough.  But a codicil to the agreement is that the writer will listen honestly and openly to the critiquer, with an understanding of the critiquer's role in the creative process.  Failure to listen with defenses down is a breach of trust and will result in no one wanting to evaluate the writer's words again.  An evaluator so attacked will be justified in saying,  "Life is too short.  I volunteered my time to end up listening to -- and being attacked by -- a whiny, defensive justification that misapprehended the help I was rendering.  I won't ever waste my time trying to help that so-and-so again."

An attitude to cultivate is gratefulness and humility.  Of course, this prescription is much easier to offer than to follow, so these words are for me as much as for any reader. If I disagree with an evaluator's statement, I have a choice: I can change the piece according to the suggestion or critique, or I can just read the evaluation and think about it in light of my original intent.  I am grateful for any comment, however, for it may lead me to consider something vitally important to the strengthening of my original idea, something I might not have considered had I not submitted my WIP for review.

My goal is to become a compensated published writer of fiction, something I said I wanted to do as a child.  Since I have never been one before, and the writing skills I have used in my profession are not completely adaptable, I've had to be willing to defer to those who know how to do what I want to do.  In the process of deferring, I have been able to give back some knowledge and experience I have developed over the years to assist others who are also writing.   And I have learned -- am learning -- while I, myself, perform critiques, and am, in turn, critiqued.

Writing is a solitary occupation, but it is also a collective endeavor.  Stories are passed down through the ages and are recited to the collective humanity.  A writer cannot write successfully -- for long, anyway -- without understanding the collective, or she risks going unread. 

J.D. Salinger wrote two very influential and wonderful novels over fifty years ago; then he stopped publishing.  Unfinished short stories from earlier in his career have been published.  Word is that he writes every day, yet know one knows for sure.  He has not been out there mixing it up in the marketplace of ideas.  And because he hasn't, the academic query is whether he will still have a place at the table of ideas.  Will his voice be stilled, except as an anachronism or curiosity whenever the time comes that his writings of the intervening fifty years are subject to publication and critiquing?  Maybe he still has it.  But, because he didn't want to weather the storm of potential criticism, his writing probably has suffered.  As for me, I would rather be read than ignored because my writing was not alive, not coherent, ungrammatical, hackneyed, illogical, or verbose. 

If a story of mine dies an honorable death because it is unreadable and is not salvageable, then fine; I can write another, and then another after that.  Writers write, and they put their writings out in the marketplace of ideas to share.  And they face condemnation as well as praise. 

Accordingly, the art of developing a thick skin has become, for me, the art of being willing.  Willing to shut up and listen.  Willing to admit that I don't know everything.  Willing to understand that others do not agree with me, or aren't persuaded by my vision -- yet.  Willing to look for the right words, the right style, the right point of view to tell a story that I want to tell, and to tell a story that others may want to read, and perchance, be moved by, and to tell a story that is true to my voice -- if I ever figure out what my voice is. 

In my professional life, I know how it feels to have someone tell me that I was unpersuasive.  It hurts.  And because, often, the stakes are so high and it is necessary to maintain professional courtesy while I listen to post-verdict evaluations, I have had to develop toughness -- the ability to not internalize the rejection, to "not let them see me sweat."  It hurts to hear that I have failed to impart clearly the story I wanted to tell.  But since I want to tell the story, I am willing: willing to listen, willing to think, willing to re-write.  And I am grateful when others listen, comment, and critique, for what doesn't kill me only makes me stronger.