10 Ways to Develop a Writer’s Skin

Oftentimes when beginning to write seriously, it’s difficult to show off your work. I think this may be something experienced by everyone, but I know at least ten people who have experienced it, so I know it’s not just me. What I’m referring to so indirectly is the development of our ability to take criticism, also known by most of us as our “skin” which, for whatever reason, has been the best metaphor for a very long time.

There are some misgivings about the writer’s skin, first and foremost, that it is impenetrable with experience. That’s not true. While some people develop a tougher skin than others, the emotional trauma of negative criticism can still affect a writer. They just get better at hiding it. Another thing is that some people start with a stronger skin than others. I also think this is false.

Now, granted, I’m not doing years of research on the subject and I am by no means the ultimate authority, these are just my opinions, but with that being said, I’ll stop hedging my opinions with “I think” and get on with it.

The writer’s skin is developed over time, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly, but there are always going to be certain cracks in the armor.

The reason writers need a skin is something of a mystery, but I think it’s narrowed down to just a couple options. The main one comes from what I know about psychology. We, as individuals, have a need to have a positive self-image. It’s part of the matrix that one psychologist says makes us “whole” and “enlightened” but at the top. In order to climb the ladder however, we need to get beyond a negative self-image and develop our beliefs more resolutely.

When we receive criticism from people we value, and we innately value human life, we find our self-image depreciated. Some people who can do poorly at things and be told they do something poorly, can still have a weak skin when it comes to writing.

In Rhetoric, I learned why. English, as a language, when it developed school systems, developed a system for teaching writing which made it seem like you were a bad person if you were bad at writing. This isn’t because of the school system however, it was because, at the time, Rhetorical studies believed that the inability to write clearly and cleanly, without error actually meant you were an incompetent stupid person. They had a direct correlation between the level of someone’s intelligence and someone’s ability to write.

This meant that anyone who was foreign learning English seemed to become smarter as they assimilated to the language. They gained IQ in the eyes of the populous as they gained the ability to speak their language. This translated into the schools as the red pen mentality. This dogma was that in order for students to learn proper writing, they had to write a lot, and write it properly. Any errors found in the writing would be marked negatively, and that was the only way for them to teach. They had too many students to do much more, or develop the student’s abilities to argue or form a rhetorical statement or essay.

So what does this have to do with writer’s skin? Everything! As we developed beyond this state, and realized that smart people also have to learn how to write given time and development of the practice, we couldn’t shake the notion that only dumb people write poorly. Even today we discriminate against people for accents that “sound stupid” to us and praise those accents which “sound smart” which is evident in a pole from I don’t remember which showed that having a British accent helps with truthfulness in advertising. Have a Brit read anything and it is more likely to be trusted as true. In many ways this is because we think of British English as traditional and proper, which directly correlates with smarter in that old dogma.

So, when writers are asking for a critique on their writing, they can feel like they’re asking for a critique on their life value through their level of intelligence. If you say the writing is bad, you’re in turn saying that the writer is stupid.

One solution when you’re learning to write is to remember that it’s a skill that is developed over time, it’s not related to how smart you are. The smartest man in the world could be unable to form a cohesive novel, speech, poem, or essay. It’s not about how smart you are, and it’s not about how hard you try. You can’t just try harder and write better. It doesn’t work like that.

Writing takes time to develop, and analysis of what you read, and how you read. To get that time, to develop that ability, you have to remember to forgive yourself for mistakes and detach your self-worth from them. Treat writing like you treat other hobbies.

When you’re learning to knit, you knit a lot of wash cloths, and you learn how to fix your mistakes. You don’t feel like you’re a failure because you made them, but you also don’t ignore them. You knit with your hands, and it takes your eyes to see the mistake. Similarly, in writing, you are your hands, you are your writer, but you’re too close to see your own mistakes, so you’ve got to prepare to find them through other people reading your work critically, as your eyes.

This is just one of the many reasons why writers need skins, and why that skin can be fragile until it develops.

Among the others are the writer’s lack of self-confidence from other areas of their lives. If a writer starts out with a bad self-image they can develop a bad image about their writing, constantly belittling it and looking for problems that aren’t necessarily problems there. Taking the knitting example further, this is like looking for errors for hours, when your eyes don’t pick up on it, and when you find something, beating your hands with a stick for something you couldn’t even see.

Learning to forgive your mistakes is really only half the battle, because you have to find the mistakes in the first place. Writers who suffer from a low self-confidence to begin with can find it extremely hard to come to anyone for help, especially if their self-confidence issues stem from close to home. There are sites out there, such as Young Writers Society which allow writers to get consistent feedback whenever they post a work, and this can help them develop beyond the point of panic when they see they’ve gotten a review because it forces them into that situation.

Another resource for those afraid to even allow reviews is a place called Fiction Press which rarely gives reviews, but the writer will see how many people have read their work, or at least, viewed it. Whenever there is a review on Fiction Press, it tends to be pretty lackluster. It’s not an in-depth analysis of what the writer did ‘poorly’ and how to improve like it can become on YWS. Mostly it’s “I liked this story a lot, keep writing!” but occasionally flamers do show up and they will start screaming that they hate the story and why. The story has gotten pretty popular if one of them has found it though, so Congratulations!

Chances are, the more views a work has, the more people like that work, and if more than two people say the same thing about it, maybe there’s something to consider. In this era of technology, there’s no reason to interact with someone you can’t run away from, and that gives a lot of avenues for learning to take criticism for people who struggle with a low self-confidence driving them to hide their work.

This was going to be a 10 ways to improve your Writer’s Skin, so if you’ve gotten through all of that, here are my suggestions:

  1. Post Frequently on a site that provides feedback
  2. Read work in your field so you know if the feedback is accurate
  3. Develop a sense of personal style and modify from there
  4. Take advantage of the feedback and edit your work
  5. Try to think about the writing as someone else’s work when reading feedback
  6. Set emotional work aside until you can read it critically before posting it
  7. Write multiple drafts of the same emotional work before posting
  8. Don’t share things if you’d be offended if someone said “it sucked” yet, wait.
  9. When you are offended by feedback, ask for feedback from someone else
  10. Give feedback to other people.

My reasonings are as follows:

1. Post Frequently

The more comfortable you are hitting that submit button, wherever it is, the easier it will be for you to submit somewhere helpful. If you’re uncomfortable doing it at first, try a site like My Diary which provides you with the option of absolutely no one else seeing it, or everyone. Eventually click it over to that everyone button when you’re ready. Not only will this help you get over the fear of putting it out there, it’ll keep a log of your progress as you continue writing.

2. Read

If we want to judge whether our writing is good or bad, we have to have something to judge it against. The only other way we can actually judge the quality of our writing is against other people in our field. You can even read the reviews of popular books, or books you’ve read to see what criticism that person has gotten and even further develop your sense of the community you’re entering.

3. Style

Each writer is unique, and developing your unique style is important because you will get feedback that contradicts what you’re trying to do with a novel or a book. Developing a style isn’t just about developing a weird phrase, a planet, or a character quirk, it’s about developing what you want to do as a writer, and finding the best means for you to utilize your skills and do that. You need this so you know when the feedback you get doesn’t match your goal.

4. Edit

This is huge because you need to learn to fix your mistakes. You might not be able to find them right off the bat all alone, but as you learn what mistakes you’re making more frequently, you’ll develop an eye to see them on your own, and you’ll learn what to look for when you’re writing.

5. Death of the Author

This in particular helps writers actually read the feedback they receive, like actually get the courage to look at it. When you’ve finished writing a work, you’ve actually moved beyond that point in time, that knowledge you had, when you started. As living beings, aside from the whole life/soul/etc argument, we are an accumulation of our memories, knowledge, intent, and abilities.

The person who began reading this article is not the same person who finished it, why? Because I had an influence on your brain, even if it was just a “That’s totally bogus” response. It’s still an idea you have now that you didn’t have then. Your intent, your interests, your abilities, are constantly changing, so you can consider the person who wrote the story you’re editing, NOT you because you’re more developed than that younger self of you was.

You cannot remember your intent when you were writing every second of that work, and because of that, you cannot demand of yourself to stand up for the honor of your work. That just doesn’t make sense.

You don’t have to remember it either, because what matters is what you want now, so just because you wrote it for a certain reason, doesn’t mean you have to keep that reason. You’re changing, learning, and developing every second of your life, so let go of the problems you had, because right now, you have a chance to fix them. [see No. 4.]

6. Step Away

If you’re writing by “bleeding onto the page” as so often is suggested, then whenever you read your work, you’re going to trigger the same emotional responses that you felt while bleeding. It’s the memory of writing it that’s triggering this. Until that response goes away, you’re going to be defensive of your emotions, and vulnerable to criticism.

The simple fact of the matter is that as time goes on we collect more emotions, more memories, and those old memories, those old triggers, will deaden. As we read the damaging work repeatedly, we develop our ability to avoid violent emotional responses through beating a dead horse with a stick type mentality.

Give yourself time to get to that point before you ask someone for feedback because no matter if the feedback is good or bad, you’re going to have to handle this work as a third party when you want to analyze whether the feedback is something you agree with or not.

7. Rewrite

This goes hand in hand with No. 6 because it’s another way for us to get rid of emotional baggage attached to a certain piece quicker. This is mostly applicable to poetry, since it’s quicker to write, but you can also have multiple copies of love scenes, climaxes, and deaths. You don’t necessarily have to change the events that take place, just change the words you use to describe them.

When you’re done, and you’re no longer in an emotionally compromised state, read back all of the different versions and decide for yourself which one you consider best. That might not be the first one, but no matter what, it should help provide you the ability to look at your work critically, thus giving you a safer place from which to post it for feedback. All you have to do is find emotional distance from the work.

8. Emotional Distance

Speaking of, consider whether you’d be offended if someone told you all the things that are wrong with a piece before you post it. This isn’t to hold you up, but to give yourself a chance to develop that skin on something else. You can’t expect the person giving you feedback to know that you’ll be very upset if they say “I didn’t think x was realistic” because it’s a real life situation, just from reading the work. You can add author notes, but they might not get read. The best thing to do is find distance so that when you get that feedback, you can ask them “what feels unrealistic to you” rather than ranting about how it actually happened.

It doesn’t matter if it actually happened or not, what matters is how the reader feels/perceives the story. What you have to develop is the ability to make them feel that it is as real as it was.

9. Asking Around

Speaking of being offended by reviewers, it’s best not to get into an argument with them. They’re giving you their time and their thoughts, whether good or bad, so it’s best to not disrespect the time they’ve given you and make them regret giving it. You might find these harsh reviews you aren’t ready for are exactly what you needed to hear when you get the ability to analyze your work.

Until that time, make friends you can trust to give you feedback you can handle, and when you get bad feedback, ask them to see if they agree or disagree. This will give you someone who’s not emotionally charged to rely on when you’re, well, emotionally compromised.

10. Give Feedback

This is another huge one because it’ll do two things.

A) It will let you read work in your field and see how other people in that genre are developing their stories, and what’s currently out there

B) It’ll help you learn to analyze literature. That’s the huge part. Literary analysis means you’re taking apart how a writer wrote what they wrote, and why. What tools did they use, what word phrases did they develop, why did they put what chapters together, and so forth, to better understand those writers we like, and why we don’t like the writers we dislike.

Once you can analyze literature, you can try using those skills on your own work. From there, you’ve pretty much developed a skin because all a writer’s skin really is, is the ability to step away from thinking they suck when they get feedback, and see it from another perspective.

Love Theories

When I began to think about love, it was romantic, it was always romantic. Sunny skies, warm kisses, gentle hugs, sweet nothings in your ear in the middle of the night, snuggling up to someone warm who makes you feel safe; that sort of thing. It was never the simple stuff, like having someone who doesn’t bother you when you’re trying to write, or having someone who can identify when you are upset or when you are happy. Those things never caught my attention. I’d always had it, and never noticed if it was gone. The most I cared for was the swelling of the heart strings and thrumming of heat shooting through my limbs. I wanted the thrill of being toyed with.

After a while, after being a toy, I guess you could say, I realized that it wasn’t an emotionally fulfilling way to see romance; it was romantic, yes, but it wasn’t satisfying. It didn’t give me what I needed, and I stopped wanting it too. From these experiences, I’m going to postulate another theory like my friendship creation theory. I plan on writing a romance, so I want to have something to go back on when I finish with this theory.

Love comes in stages, gradually adopting a more mature viewpoint.

A and B meet and see each other.

A is attracted to B and develops that attraction in their head. They swoon over them and coo over them in private and develop the attraction through interaction with themselves or with others.  This could be talking to friends, this could be daydreaming, or it could just be straight up interacting with the person and reading into what they say.

A eventually tells B about their attraction.

B now has to decide if they feel similarly or not. If they do, they tell A they are attracted to them back, if they do not, they might still tell them they’re attracted to them and try to cultivate the attraction into something real because of a number of reasons.

A begins to learn a lot more about B.

A may or may not continue to be attracted to B because of their habits, and personal things. This is up in the air and determines the rest of the relationship.

Usually love comes in stages; the first stage is Puppy love, where A and B are attracted to one another, and have endorphins flooding through their system every time they’re around one another; the second stage is a bartering, where A and B determine how much they can sacrifice and would have to sacrifice to be with the individual they love. They fight a lot and without a determined procedure to end arguments, they can ruin their friendship and negate the puppy love.

Sometimes this second stage only starts to happen after they are married. They begin to learn more about one another and discover that they actually both have pet peeves that match the other’s bad habits. The fighting becomes too much, and they divorce, or move out.

I think there is a third stage too, after bartering and compromise, they begin to develop an independence stage of love, where they know one another’s limits, and begin to respect one another’s boundaries again. This gives people a chance to go back to what they really liked to do, such as hobbies, sports, games, and begin to cultivate children. I think this is the stage where most long-time married people end up, and is the final stage of love.

Sometimes you can go through the first two stages very quickly, other times you can’t. It depends on the people.

I do believe that people can cultivate a fake puppy love for an individual, not that it’s fake so much as fabricated. I know that the mind is a powerful tool, and if you tell yourself you’re stupid for long enough, you suddenly stop remembering things like 2+2=4 is the sum of two and two is four. The product of two and two is also four. There’s other evidence in things such as confidence building, and the idea that you can “fake it until you make it” which is completely based on the idea that the longer you tell yourself and act a certain way, the more true it will become. Self-fulfilling prophecies are one real example of how that works.

There’s no reason Love wouldn’t be the same way. If you tell yourself you love someone enough, and you expect love to be the puppy love fluttery heart, warm hugs, and kisses, you’re going to feel that way towards them eventually. I think the safer road is to look for someone you’re compatible with.

Instead of looking for that first stage, look for the second.

Look for someone you can fight with and come out the other side still friends, and in agreement most of the time. Find someone who can tell you off and not kill your emotionally delicate balance. Then, when you’ve found that person, love them. They are the ones who will eventually begin to give you your own space, and produce a meaningful relationship with you, creating boundaries, and establishing times when you just need a hug. These are the people you want in your life, whether it’s all romantically inclined or not.

The Theory of Friendships in Literature

This is sort of something I’ve been rolling around in my head for a while, so I’m going to write it out and you can agree or disagree, but I think it’s important to write out.

When a group of characters start a relationship, it is often the case that the writer will create a clear advantage for one person, and a clear disadvantage for another.

Let’s take some examples

Starting out the relationship between Captain America and Iron Man was very very tentative. They didn’t like each other, to put it bluntly. CA thought IM was a full of himself jerk, and IM thought CA was outdated and a goody goody. How is it that through the story, these two develop a bond?

My answer is the following formula.

  • A is more x, B is more y
  • B dislikes A for x[specific] or A dislikes B for y[specific]
  • B gains p from relationship with A or A gains z from relationship with B
  • A saves B
  • B develops a respect/trust/friendship for A
  • B saves A
  • A finally feels satisfied with B

If we look at this in context, it goes something like this for Captain America and Iron Man.

  • Captain America is physically stronger and more nationally driven, while Iron Man is much smarter with technology and a freer spirit to invent and create.
  • Iron Man dislikes Captain America for being such a goody goody
  • However, Iron Man has to follow Captain America’s leadership while Captain America has to use Iron Man for his innovative tools and information.
  • Captain America doesn’t let Iron Man grind up in the fans[I forget what they were called].
  • Iron Man develops a trust for Captain America’s ability to be punctual enough in the end, and to be able to be there when it counts.
  • Iron Man saves Captain America by throwing the Nuke into the sky. [He might have done it before this too at some point but this is the one I’m going to use.]
  • Captain America finally feels that Iron Man is worth having on the team because he will go all the way in the end if he needs to even if he doesn’t think he will ever need to.

Of course, this formula doesn’t necessarily develop friendship. What it shows developing is trust, in my opinion. You put two people in situations individually where they have to save each other, and they begin to understand that they can rely on each other to be safe. This key development of trust is necessary in two ways, A to B and B to A because once you’re not trusted by someone, you don’t always want to trust them unconditionally again.

We can see this working in more ways than just action movies too. Sometimes it’s something more elementary that is being used as a “save”

If we look at Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling uses this to develop the bond between Harry, Hermione, and Ron.

  • Hermione is smarter and a better wizard but Harry and Ron are more daring.
  • Harry and Ron are reluctant to keep Hermione around because she’s a girl and she doesn’t really fit in. She’s a know it all! [she followed them into the clutch of danger]
  • Hermione wants friendship and she feels like she gets that from Harry and Ron.
  • Hermione uses her smarts to get more information on the Philosopher’s stone and saves them from Fluffy, and the vines.
  • Harry and Ron realize just how useful having Hermione is for everything.
  • Harry and Ron save Hermione from being alone and in the future, protect her from bullying
  • The three of them remain close friends through the series saving each other countless times

Even if we look at some classics, like Pride and Prejudice, we can see this at play.

The initial bond between Darcy and Elizabeth is a bad one. Darcy doesn’t want to like Elizabeth, but he does, and Elizabeth does not like Darcy, but she can’t hurt her sister’s suitor’s friend to his face. That covers the first three. How do they save each other? Darcy saves Elizabeth from ruin when Lydia elopes, and Elizabeth saves Darcy from loneliness in the end when they actually get married. If you’ll notice, Elizabeth too was potentially going to be alone forever, and she too was saved by wedding Darcy because he’s discovered to be a good man and nothing like what she thought. In this way, when Elizabeth realizes that Darcy has saved her, she grows a very tight trust to him, and that trust allows Darcy to reassess and restate what he wants. Before this point, Darcy had every faith that Elizabeth was a beautiful woman who could make him happy, and in a way, she’s already saved him from being bored on a number of occasions.

I’d like to state that save, then, does not have to be something that is simply a physical act, but it can be an emotional one, or a metaphysical one as well. Within any conflict of person vs person, person vs self, person vs object, etc. there is a chance that someone else could step in, and help bring both, or one party out of the conflict by resolving it externally. If Jesus and Lucifer were fighting a war, and God stepped in and said No, Jesus wins, God saves Jesus. Likewise if a child is struggling with a jar of pickles and their parent steps in to open it for them, they are relieved from that conflict and thus, saved. Taking saved to the next level like this will allow us to develop better, tighter relationships through trust, without developing situations that our characters have to die in to be saved. The biggest potential for saving someone else is loneliness. Humans are pack animals, so to speak, we need other people to get along. There is all the potential in the world that one person could save another just by being a stranger who smiled at them.

So what happens if one of the pieces is missing? I think some of these are exaggerated points, to be honest. The key thing is that A saves B, and B saves A. As long as A and B both develop an understanding that the other person will have their back, that trust is going to be there on some level. Even between Villains and Heros there is a trust that goes into this relationship. The hero relies on the villain to not come up and shoot him in the head if he is developing overboard technology to take over the world. Likewise, the Villain is trusting that the Hero won’t shoot him in the head either. It is in their playbooks to avoid direct confrontation until the last minute, and when they do, not to kill each other. If that trust is broken, then, well, usually one party is dead and the story is over. Take Breaking Bad for instance, when Walter started being a complete crazy person, his partner lost faith in him and tried to quit, this is a break down of this trust, but because they both had, at one point in time, saved each other, his partner still didn’t ever think Walter would kill him.

If one of the sides has not saved the other, I think the biggest thing that happens is a weak friendship if there is friendship at all. Sometimes this happens, especially when one side is much weaker than the other and cannot possibly come up with a situation where they can save the other person. They can still form valuable relationships, but they are less valuable than if if that trust was formed, and not as long term.

How this is Applicable

Now that I’ve gone through and displayed the thoughts behind this, and some unique examples for how it can be used, I hope that people will see it as something they can use to develop trust between characters in situations where there wasn’t any trust in the novel to begin with, in a realistically accepted way.

To me, friendship and bonds are built through equivalent exchange. When both parties feel that it is valuable to keep the relationship, that is when they are most valuable to the individuals involved. Relationships, then, are an exchange of worth between two individuals. This requires trust that the other individual isn’t just going to suddenly drop out of nowhere and be useless with their information.

So, in writing stories, this is most useful because we can develop plots around trust development of two characters, and from then on, rely on that past experience to carry that trust until it is eroded past it’s worth, usually through A not saving B or B not saving A when they would have before. To regain this trust is harder than to form it originally because trust can break a lot easier than it can form.