Thicken That Skin!

They say we feel negative emotions more strongly than positive ones. Maybe that explains why when I receive anything vaguely resembling negative criticism on my written work, I get unreasonably nervous.

It doesn’t even have to be bad news for me to get nervous about it. Sometimes receiving any feedback makes me want to close a browser window and not read the new notification—out of fear that it might be vaguely non-flattering.

I can be really sensitive. Many of us can be! And now that I know this about myself, and have gone through cycles of both publishing stuff online and giving/receiving feedback in writer’s circles, I have ideas about how to mitigate it, and some of them might help you.

Ways to Thicken Ye Skin

Ground yourself with this message to yourself: “It’s not me, it’s the work.”

Yes, of course your work is in some ways a reflection or extension of yourself. That doesn’t mean you equal your work. (Besides, if anything, it would be a reflection of your past self, you whenever you made it—a version which is receding…or, to put it another way, is learning, and changing.)

A comment that says “I dislike this story” does not have to mean “I dislike you.”

That being said, if it is essentially “I dislike you”…

“It’s not me, it’s you.”

Yeah. Some people in life will just have a problem with you, whether for innocuous things you do, message boards you happen to inhabit, or your mere existence. It’s a depressing fact of life, and maybe not something it’s possible for me to get skin-thickened to as much as…sadly used to, and occasionally ignoring…?

But in any case, I’m only here to provide tips on navigating criticism on creative work. And when you encounter people who are clearly more incensed about you than about the quality of your piece, you know you can dismiss most or all of what they say. If they are legion, you have several routes you can take. Depending on what kind of setting this is, you may be able to ignore or block them, or report them, or you may be forced to go elsewhere, or you may be able to rally other people (especially fellow artists beaten down by the same group/s) to join you in solidarity.

I honestly have no experience going down these routes, or being in situations that I felt were truly dangerous. So my advice can only extend to “recognize that it’s not a problem with you or your craft, it’s a problem this other person has to deal with.”

If the critique is not just hate mail, take a break and come back with a clearer head.

Some people have thoughtful feedback but don’t know the gentlest way to present it. And really, they have no obligation to present it in the gentlest way—while it’s definitely tactful, and artists understand how important gentle feedback in critical junctures can be, there is no law saying that’s the way it has to be.

You may avoid digesting some vital feedback from a close and avid reader of your work. After all, what’s the fiction most likely to betray you—to shatter your expectations in the worst possible way? Stories that you’re very invested in, or that you had hoped to be very invested in.

A reviewer might be caustic because you seriously misstepped, and they might be expressing a pain that you as an artist should listen to. They may feel betrayed by a devastating moment in the plot that, to them, didn’t feel in keeping with the rest. It may be a matter of representation—maybe you wrote an accidental stereotype, and the actual, non-stereotype version is seething over your work.

These are the things that—if you want to advance your craft—are both hard and important to read.

Oh yeah, and sometimes reviewers think they’re being funny and will write stuff like, “This story is so crappy I’d rather read a diarrhea dump!!!!! -5/10!!!!!” But then they’ll bury the lead, adding some tidbit about a thoughtful way to genuinely enhance your story. You may have to fight through and read that.

Then again, maybe you don’t have to read every message, even if it is well thought-out…but this is just my style at the moment, as a random indie author (and one who doesn’t get a high volume of comments anyway).


Pick your battles.

Every piece of potentially useful advice is a potential change to your work. No matter what, it will change the work’s character.

Many readers hate the natural wandering in Lord of the Rings—not necessarily its existence, but the fact that there is so much of it. And why do they have to saddle up and oat up their horses for this many pages?! Why do they have to meet some forest guy with yellow boots and his wife the living incarnation of springtime when they don’t even give them any magical quest items?!?!

But I have a feeling that if Tolkien read such criticism, he wouldn’t have cared that much. Or, at any rate, he would not have chosen to care. It seems to me based on a glance over his other works that this adventuring was the point, a big part of it, an element of nature, culture, and mythos that in his mind deserved some outsized prominence in his novels. So Frodo and friends go on “random useless side-quests,” as some modern fantasy fans influenced by post-LotR tabletop and video games may see them.

Only the author truly knows what should and shouldn’t go into the work. A critic may have sharper eyes on one point or several, but no critic can truly say, “I really should be the author. I would fix everything.” The critic may be able to make a better work, or a smarter or more adventurous or more resonant one. But the work as it stands has value and the author’s intent. It’s uniquely theirs—yours.

It’s your job as the author to make the work you intended to put out there, or better than you intended.

You can look at a comment that deplores your characters and say to yourself, “I agree. I wanted my characters to feel like living, breathing people, and to this reader, I failed in that. Reading their reactions, I see their point. I’ll study X more in the future to improve.” Or you can say, “Yep, I do see where this reader is coming from. But I bet this reader was looking for realism, but a realistic story is not the one I wanted to tell. I know why the characters have heightened emotions and how that plays into the work. It is part of the core of the work.”

Put on a smug persona. (WARNING: ONLY IN YOUR HEAD!)

This can be combined with any of the above tips ‘n’ tricks. If you read a comment and your forehead grows hot, you can immediately respond (in your own head, of course) with a cooler-than-thou attitude.

“This story makes no sense.” “No its not youre just bad at reading B) guess its not for you anyway”

“I hate this story because it includes a member of X group, making it ‘too political.'” “Woah i thought progressives were supposed to be the snowflakes its sad that you are so sensitive 8′( ***(note: tears of fake pity)”

“This story is the worst.” “No its not i like it so its probably the best : ) “

Again, I would recommend not posting these…or saying them…

Or just don’t read the reviews!!!

Finally, as I alluded to earlier, you can go what might be the path of least resistance: just don’t read it.

You know what your work is. You may know what it needs better than those particular outside voices could ever tell you. And (disregarding any official editors, agents, or censors for the sake of cool-sounding sentences) only you are the final arbiter of any changes to your work. Not JimboDimbo2198 on the Storytime Chatroom.

If you literally can’t go to certain websites without knowing that some new “urgent” info has come in, you may have to block people, or whole sites, or filter your email, or end your notifications, or put an actual sticky note on your browser window to block a glowing “3 New Messages.” Or it may be that you need to thicken your skin by developing that willpower to go somewhere and leave notifications be. Naturally, what everyone would need to do varies. The exact strategies can only be personal.

It’s way better to safeguard your own confidence than to read random shit online and feel devastated. Overall, you should take up the strategies that keep you feeling safe, sure in yourself and your writing powers, and motivated to raise your craft to the level you want it.

My Personal Writing Update (WARNING: CAT ACTION)

My progress on Catgirl System has been sluggishly sliding forward since my last update. In fact, those in the know will be aware that I didn’t post this “biweekly” Cat-post until a few days after my deadline! In fact, like four or five days.

That’s drastic. I knew it was happening as it happened, but I just felt pulled away. Eventually I thought, “A delayed post is only delayed once, but a bad post is bad forever.” I think that’s a quote I appropriated from some GDC talk. Don’t remember.

Regardless, here are my fun progress gauges:

Book 1: 100% done
Book 2: 85% through the solid-draft stage
Book 3: 100% through the first-draft stage
Book 4: 80% through the first-draft stage

I’m achingly close to finishing Book 2, but it’s taking more additions and new writing than I predicted. Still, I’m excited about what’s coming. A so-so action scene is becoming something ridiculous, in the good way (or, good to me. Hey, I know what my work is!!!!!).

The story has been posting on SpaceBattles and ScribbleHub, and I’m happy to see it getting positive responses. I’m even happy to see some negative, confused and disappointed ones…partly because I went in having made peace with myself that “yep, this is where my story is at, and some will like it and some won’t.”

No, it’s my drafts for Book 2 and onward that require the flogging. Some of these scenes do not work—in no reality do they work—and it almost hurts to self-edit them because the ideas are so bad. But then I remind myself, “I tried it, and I’m glad I did, because that shows me how thoroughly it not-works.”

Thank you for reading, and Patrons, thank you for Patreonning. And hey, we got a new member this month!! I appreciate every bit.

To read all of my tips for authors and artists, click here! (One post is about the Ned and the Homer.) Or learn about ye movie reviews here, and see why not all Rankin-Basses are classics. Then again, maybe you just like the Pokemon. I don’t blame you.

2 thoughts on “Thicken That Skin!”

  1. Excellent post! I also struggle with a lot of these things, taking it too personally when I hear negative feedback about my writing, even though I know the feedback is about the writing, not about me as a person.

    The thing that has helped me the most (which you touched upon but I really want to drill into) is the realization that “Not every story is for every reader.” Speaking as a reader myself, I know there are many writing styles, and even entire genres, that I just can’t get into no matter how hard I try. I read a few Jane Austen novels a few years ago to try to expand my palate, and I learned that my palate doesn’t take well to Regency Era romance. It’s just not my thing. Any feedback I could ever give to Jane Austen is less than useless.

    And even when the story+reader combo is a good fit… The biggest thing I learned from following other authors with rigorous beta-reader cycles before final release? Beta readers are usually very good at identifying when something in a story isn’t working, but are simultaneously very bad and usually wrong when they’re suggesting *how* to fix those problems. When those authors get feedback along the lines of “Character A doing Thing B in Chapter C is stupid, they should do Thing D instead,” they accept that something about A doing B might need to change, but changing B to D probably won’t fix the actual issue. Because maybe the actual issue is more about the pacing, or about more clearly conveying the motivations involved, or something else entirely.

    Now, despite all that, I’m not trying to say feedback is worthless or should always be disregarded. Feedback is great, it’s how we help lift each other up — but it should rarely be taken at face value.

    “This story is so crappy I’d rather read a diarrhea dump!!!!! -5/10!!!!!” I read this in the voice of the Angry Video Game Nerd.

    1. I totally second you on that notion/set of notions. Up to and including Jane Austen. I know this is like 10% of the point of your post, but augh, me too, I never got into them. Of course, I was reading Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion for school, but later reading Vanity Fair by this other dude gave me much the same feeling: a constant “…oh, that was SARCASM. that was supposed to be WITTY AND FUNNY. oh, this is important if you manage an estate in a MESS OF TANGLED LEGALESE.”

      It took me years and years to be able to give fictional criticism worth a darn. Even then I can’t pretend to know 99% of best solutions. Your observation that beta readers tend to have that one critical failing (or, alternatively, shouldn’t be expected to provide that) is on point and rarely read/heard.

      You were right to read that as the Angry Video Game Nerd.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Discover more from Joi Massat

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading