• Seek out criticism to build toughness and enable desensitizing.
• Shift perspectives: become your own manager when taking criticism (using tokens can help).
• Multi-track: do several submissions at once, and produce so much content you don’t feel so personal about each one.
• Learn what criticism is helpful. Use large groups of people to review your work to see they agree on, on average.
Writing, or any other artistic endeavor, is difficult. It can be even more difficult to show others our writing, especially when they might actually give us real feedback and not just pat us on our heads and tell us how special we are. This work is our baby that we slaved on for weeks, months, or years to create. We may even know our work sucks, but who wants to have someone else tell them that too!
But criticism is important. First, anyone who publishes a creative work is going to get criticized, even if it’s ‘perfect.’ (I’m unaware of any popular books, movies, or anything else that don’t have at least a 1 star review on Amazon). Second, criticism can help us actually grow. We get to learn what we’re doing wrong (from an outside perspective) and can move to fix it. And third, if we’re too afraid of criticism, we’re not going to write/or publish/or share our talents with the world.
What we need is thick skin, the ability to take criticism without making it too personal; the ability to hear “your work sucks,” or “your novel just isn’t right for our company,” or, “you need to go back and learn how to write,” and not give up but take it all in stride. I’m a believer in the growth mindset vs fixed so I believe all us can develop thick skin, or at least get better at taking criticism. How do we do that though? Here’s four tips on developing thick skin.
Embrace Rejection Dive Right In
Desensitization is the process where we become more comfortable with negative emotions the more exposure we have with them. Basically, the first time we face criticism, it hurts. The second time, it hurts a little less. The more and more we face it, the more we get used to it. This doesn’t apply to all situations, but for querying and other aspects of writing, it can. The first rejection to my query letter was painful (albeit kind of exciting because I felt like a real author getting rejected). The next few ones hurt too but they got easier to take over. I’m still getting a query rejections trickling and to some degree, each hurts less.
The same applies to my writers’ group. It’s painful to hear when things aren’t working, especially when I think I’ve done such a good job with some section. I used to actually listen to music while my group was reviewing my work to distract me from the pain I felt. Now, I can handle it much better, although I still sometimes distract myself. Criticism still sucks, but I know it holds the potential of making a better author and develop thicker skin.
So find opportunities for criticism. Seek it out, knowing you’re making yourself stronger. Be willing to take some beatings because you’re a writer in training and you’re earning your stripes, quite literally sometimes.
For a great discussion on the in’s and out’s of desensitizing (and also how it can be done poorly and lead to disaster), I’d recommend Guy Winch’s book Emotional First Aid: Practical Strategies for Treating Failure, Rejection, Guilt, and Other Everyday Psychological Injuries. It goes into various aspects of mental health but covers rejection and the potential of desensitizing as a technique (if done correctly).
Shifting Perspective Put on Another Hat
I got this one from reading the War of Art. Basically, it entails shifting your perspective: when you’re writing, be the author; when you’re seeking feedback, pretend like you’re the manager of the author, or as the War of Art says, you’re Self-Incorporated. As the manager, you can cut out parts of the book much easier than the author. You listen to feedback from critics, friends, compatriots, etc. without becoming too defensive because as the manager, you’re just getting their feedback. You’ll take it to the author eventually, but for right now, you’re separate entities.
You can help out with this by making a physical change. I’ve written before about my magic ring (spoiler alert…it’s not actually magic) that I would wear to ‘become an author.’ For a while, I also used that ring when being critiqued by writing groups, telling myself this ring made me an editor/manager of Self-Incorporated. My token was small enough to be unnoticeable, but wearing it helped remind me to play the other role when taking criticism.
Multi-tracking Multiple Submissions Simultaneously
I got multi-tracking from the book Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work. The authors (Chip and Dan Heath) report a study of graphic designers that really illustrated the potential benefits: (also see Parallel Prototyping Leads to Better Design Results, More Divergence, and Increased Self-Efficacy by Steven Dow, et. all available at http://spdow.ucsd.edu/files/PrototypingParallel-TOCHI10.pdf)
One group of designers submitted one design at time, then submitted a revision based on feedback, only to be critiqued again, and do another submission, five times in total. The other group of graphic designers submitted several designs at once, receiving feedback on their multiple designs, then resubmitted based on that feedback. Turns out the graphic designers who were multi-tracking (submitting various designs at once) were not only received better, they were MUCH happier with the process and their work than the one-at-a-timers.
The application of this might be a little fuzzy with writing–typically we don’t submit several different versions of a chapter to a writers’ group (although a little bit of that can be helpful). However, we can submit multiple books at once. Having several projects can alleviate the pressure of putting all your hopes and dreams into one basket (book). Not only that, but submitting queries for multiple books has also helped me take away some rejection fear.
Related to that is by merely creating a lot of content, you’ll be less invested in each individual novel. Some of your books may be crappy. Others may be brilliant. While each will still be special, having created so many means you won’t be so tied down to just one individual one. This will make taking criticism much easier.
Gaining Discernment Parsing the Wheat from the Tares
It’s important to note that not all criticism is helpful. Some of it can be downright disastrous. It brings to mind the Aesop’s fable of the miller, his son and his donkey: (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_miller,_his_son_and_the_donkey#The_fable).
You can’t please everyone. If you tried to please everyone, you’d end up with a bizarre mix of story that wouldn’t satisfy anyone. My published friend once submitted a work where the agent told him the plot was great but the characters were dull. Another agent told him the plot was dull but the characters were great. How do you tell who’s right?
A lot of it comes down to you. As the author, you’re the final word in your work. That entails taking a lot of personal responsibility for your book, but it also gives a lot of freedom to choose. But another great indicator of whether criticism is something you should listen to is averages. If you give your work to a group of people and one of them brings up an issue but no one else does, it’s probably a personal opinion. Now if everyone in the group says that issue needs work, it probably needs work.
This played out in my first book, where everyone said the love story needed fixing. That very clearly told me what I needed to do. One person brought up a concern, but no one else mentioned it, so I knew I could easily keep it as is and move onto more pertinent feedback. Other times, the one person to bring something up has been useful. It just depends on the situation.
The same will playout with you. Try to submit your work to multiple parties at once (kind of like multi-tracking, right?) to get a good sense of how readers, on average, feel your book reads. Where a majority of people agree, spend time thinking about it. Where there’s just one or two people voicing criticism, it might not matter. Still consider it, but it might just be personal opinion.
Gaining thick skin is SUPER important to being an author. You can jump right into getting more criticism to get desensitized. You can shift perspectives to think of yourself as a manager than an author when it comes time to be critiqued, even using a token (like a ring or a hat) to remind you of the shift. You can multi-track submissions or produce so much you aren’t as invested in each individual project. And you can learn to discern what criticism you can just ignore. So what about you? How have you found it useful to help get take criticism? How have you found that criticism has helped?