C h a z z W r i t e s . c o m

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The Myth of the Writer’s Thick Skin

I wrote about rating the dreaded one-star review last week (Scan down the page for that). Now let’s delve into the thin-skinned versus the thick-skinned as we deal with genuinely nasty and undeserved critiques. When you put yourself out there, it’s going to happen. People disagree about what’s good and some of them think that if they don’t like it, you should stop what you’re doing and stop breathing, too. (Read some of the uglier one-star reviews on Amazon or the plethora of terrible, even racist, comments on popular YouTube videos and you’ll see what I mean. I’m not talking about the thoughtful critiques you should take seriously to improve. I’m talking boneheads, here.)

Writers are often told that rejection itself is good for them. Somehow, all the bad news from agents and editors is supposed to toughen you for when you earn your right to stand among the pros and get bad reviews. What a buttload that is. Seasoned pros feel anguish over their detractors, too. You’ve heard it gets better? It doesn’t. It gets worse. Unless you have the self-possession of a serial killer, almost all of us are thin-skinned when it comes to nasty reviews. Not that it will necessarily matter to them, but one-star reviewers should know that their unkind words are burned into our brains forever. The Pulitzer and the Nobel prizes? We’ll have to dig out the letters to remember the positive stuff but our memories for nasty is eidetic and forever.

Comedian Jimmy Pardo related a great story on a podcast called The Myoclonic Jerk this week. (Download it from iTunes or Stitcher. There are some great segments on writers dealing with rejection, dejection and writer’s block.) Pardo opens up about his first and last disastrous appearance on The Tonight Show. For reasons that aren’t on him, the set did not go well and it took him years to get over it. “And this,” he points out, ” was before the Internet!” It’s a great point. The same experience today would have been vivisected across the Internet by thousands of snarky, anonymous nasties, critiqued barbarically on YouTube and would live on even now. As it was? It still took him years before he got over the trauma.

Director Kevin Smith has a cult for a fan club. He also has people waiting for him to do anything just so they can pull it apart, sometimes sight unseen. They criticize his weight and his appearance. Some people wouldn’t give him credit for making a smart artistic choice even by accident. Surprise! Surprise! Growing up fat and criticized doesn’t make you any less sensitive to the nasty comments when you grow to adulthood, especially when you get kicked off a plane for being a person of size. Hurtful comments remain hurtful because words matter, even when the losers and wannabes making said comments don’t.

Performer Penn Jillette has some really interesting things to say about criticism. His show, Penn & Teller, actually gets very few criticisms in the run of a year, but he remembers every single ugly one. The unfair critiques still bother him, but he did come to the realization that they shouldn’t. Jillette points out that every snarky criticism he takes too seriously is an insult to all the thousands of fans who take the time to send him praise. He’s right! We should focus on the reviews that can help us. Those won’t all be the five-star kind, but a healthy ego and confidence serves any writer in moving forward. Again, I’m not campaigning for worship, here. Respect will do.

Now if only we could figure out how to not let the bad reviews bother us. As I pointed out in last week’s posts about reviews, the higher you climb in Amazon’s rankings, the more likely you are to attract people who wouldn’t like your work no matter what. As author Russell Blake suggested on his blog, that could be because the one-star reviewers are grabbing up free copies to fill their Kindles indiscriminately and getting books that are outside their preferred genre. Those reviews that say, “This is crap because it isn’t at all what I expected,” are annoying. (As I suggested to all reviewers, both naughty and nice, please check the  sample before clicking the buy button.)

We can try to accentuate the positive and focus on the good. I don’t know how to do that, do you? Really? Do tell! (Seriously, we all want to know. Leave a comment on how you deal with particularly nasty reviews. One idea from last week was simply to look at the nasty reviews for the books you love and recognize you share a commonality with your most favorite writers: doofuses.)

We can grin and bear it, but not many of us can do that without a lot of pretending while we simmer inside, plot our enemies destruction and, in the end, allow a nasty review to ruin an entire morning of what would otherwise be productive time. (Hell, I got into a scuffle over politics on Facebook which slowed me down for an hour and that was with a great friend!)

We can tell ourselves to consider the source and dismiss it. It might be a good idea. It’s never actually been tried in recorded history. That’s just something people tell victims of bullies. We get hung up on that mysterious “dismissing” part of the plan.

We could meditate, which someone once said is better than sitting and doing nothing. I meditated for a long time. I learned something powerful about meditation: It’s boring and not for me.

We could tell ourselves that any critic is only talking about your book, not you. That’s might be right. Maybe it’s more like when a stranger insults your child. We all take that well.

We can theoretically just avoid reading reviews, but no one will do that and even if you did, your mom would call to read the bad review to you over the phone.

We could exercise out stress away. That’s really good advice I’m keep telling myself I should take.

There is one thing that seasoned pros do that’s different from overly delicate dilettantes: Writers keep writing. A nasty review can put a speed bump in your day, but the only remedy I know to assuage the pain of adversity is to pull my WIP up on the screen, put my head a few inches above the keyboard and write. Furiously. Move on to the next. “Next” is a powerful word. “Begin again” are two powerful words. Your people are out there. Your readers will appreciate you. And the ugly one-star reviewers writing undeserved vituperation? Nasty reviews are probably the extent of all the writing they’ll ever do.

Swear under your breath and keep writing, just like the seasoned pros! 

Continuing to write despite it all, not thick skin, is the mark of a professional writer.

If you’ve got thick skin, try a loofah.

Thin skin? That’s okay. If you look closely, writers are almost human, too.

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21 Responses

  1. I’ve never been a huge fan of this whole “writers must have a thick skin” thing. Bad reviews make me feel bad. They make me feel like I’ve failed at what I set out to do somehow. They make me wonder what I could have done to make my story better. No, I don’t have a thick skin at all.

    • Chazz says:

      Me, either. But…shit. I have nothing to say after “but.” Somebody told me once that the Latin phrase non a bastardi carbundrium means, “Don’t let the bastards get you down.”

      Thanks for reading, Tonya!

  2. Alana Woods says:

    I received my first one star review on Amazon a few weeks ago and it was such a stinker it was good — after a stunned moment or two I actually laughed. Then I blogged it everywhere I could think of with the headline ‘Such a stinker it’s good’. That blog received four times the number of hits I usually get and my sales went up. That tactic probably wouldn’t work a second time though 🙂

    • Chazz says:

      I saw that that. Yeah, it got my attention too because, in drawing attention to it, you went beyond being a good sport. Good job!

  3. Dougie Brimson says:

    As someone fortunate enough to make a living through writing, I am often asked for advice and the first thing I tell anyone looking to write for publication or broadcast is that if you can’t take criticism, don’t do it.

    Sadly, it is an integral part of the job and therefore it is vital that you understand exactly what it is and how it works. More importantly, it is imperative that you learn how to handle it because if you can’t, it can and will eat you up and spit you out.

  4. Love this post! I haven’t published anything yet but all I keep hearing is how I’ll need thick skin. Your post shows that you really don’t need it, it’s your outlook that’s important. Thanks.

    Morgan x

  5. I couldn’t agree more and will look for therapy too!

    • Chazz says:

      Hm. Therapy. Yes. I think writing the blog is therapy sometimes. It might be good to have a therapist talk me in off this ledge. Oh, look! The fire department is down there, too.

  6. Excellent post, and so true! I love your advice “next”. It is a powerful word, as is the statement “I AM”. My older sister (who is not a writer but a motivational-type person) told me about these words.

    You can put whatever you want to follow them. For example, I AM a strong person. I AM not going to let bad reviews bring me down. I AM going to keep writing.

    • Chazz says:

      Sometimes the affirmations, “Don’t you know who I am?!” and “I’ll kill you all with a blow torch!” are also helpful (in the right circumstances.) Thanks for reading, Carolyn.


  7. It is a strange thing about human nature in that meanness of any sort sticks with it like lint on velcro, while we remain terminally suspect of kindness. No answers here either, Brother. Perhaps when we can walk on water, we’ll have moved beyond giving a shit what anyone else thinks. That looks a whole lot more likely than affirmations.

    • Chazz says:

      Well, there are those Keep Calm and Carry on t-shirts. Probably won’t do any good, but they are fetching.

  8. Thanks for the kind review, Chazz, and the many insights you offer. In case anyone would like to download the podcast with the Pardo interview (and much more), here’s a link:
    Or click my name for the podcast’s website.

  9. One advantage nowadays is that you can get plenty of experience being hated on the internet before you ever get a book for people to dump on. I’ve been slammed any number of times on a forum, chat room or comments section, sometimes with good reason ’cause I wasn’t thinking. It doesn’t make one thick-skinned, but it does at least provide practice.

    • Chazz says:

      Lol! Yeah, but I don’t think the practice does us a damn bit of good. I had a run in with a couple of people in the last week. One was arguable, the other was pathetic (on their part.) I didn’t lose any sleep on the one that was debatable, but I gave the silly person way to much time in my head. We must avoid energy vampires. Life’s too short. You’ve got a good point, though. For the people who do believe there is some value in rejection, lots of us have plenty of experience with rejection dejection without ever having to send a manuscript to an agent’s slush pile.

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