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