You’ve all heard the recommendation: If you want to be a writer, develop thicker skin. Searching for “writing, thick skin” on Google yields almost 75 million results. But after two decades of writing and editing, I can tell you: getting a thicker skin will only hurt your writing.
Don’t get me wrong. This advice comes from a well-meaning place. After all, writing for publication is a rejection-filled process. And as writers, we do have to accept feedback on our work if we want it to shine. From critique partners to agents to editors to copyeditors, multiple people touch each book, story, essay, or poem that goes out into the world and sometimes their feedback, no matter how gently delivered, stings. This is not an article telling you to ignore all feedback on your perfectly brilliant first draft. I’m a book coach by trade — I obviously believe in the value of editorial feedback. And I won’t claim, even for a second, that accepting feedback isn’t hard. But I will tell you there’s something that’s the absolute opposite of thick skin and is crucial to good writing: vulnerability.
Thick Skin Detracts From Your Work
In 2021, author and story guru Lisa Cron released Story or Die: How to Use Brain Science to Engage, Persuade, and Change Minds in Business and in Life, the latest in a series of books about how our brains process the stories we’re told. Her second book, Story Genius, is required reading for my coaching clients and I use the exercises in it each time I sit down to write a new short story or novel. At her launch party for the book in March of 2021, Lisa said, “
And what’s the opposite of being vulnerable? Having a thick skin. Sure, you can try to compartmentalize. Be vulnerable when you write and put on that thick skin for critique group and submission news. But I’ve tried it and it just doesn’t work. Not only is denying or suppressing your emotions for the sake of getting a “thick skin” a great way to let anxiety and depression creep in, but it can also lead to an endless cycle of trying to write to the market to avoid rejection only to find yourself the recipient of rejection letter after rejection letter. And as slow as publishing is, writing a book is even slower. Writing to the current market is like a dog chasing its tail — you’ll never quite get their and you’ll end up dizzy with exhaustion.
OK, OK, so I’ve convinced you that the idea of needing thicker skin to be a good writer is a myth. Now what? Here are three things you can do instead of building a thick skin that will help you become a better writer:
Being vulnerable is terrifying. If you put something surface-level out into the world and it’s rejected, it’s more self-fulfilling prophecy than crisis. If you put your truest self out there? It can be devastating to hear that your best work is not yet good enough.
You Can’t Control the Business
Once you’ve developed your thin, vulnerable skin, you have to stop trying to control the business side of things. This is actually the key to surviving this business with the vulnerability and emotion you need to move readers with your words. You cannot control how agents, editors, readers, or reviewers respond to your work. Don’t try. It’s the fastest way to sap the joy out of the work.
Amazing agent Kate McKean offered this key perspective in “How To Keep Your Spirits Up”: On the whole, you cannot do anything about the overworked agent with 5 minutes a day to think about queries, when yours is 100 deep in the slush pile. You cannot do anything about the editor with 5 minutes a day to read submissions, and yours 50 deep in the submission pile. You cannot do anything about someone losing their job or moving to a different house or a publisher closing up shop. You cannot do anything about the ever shrinking books coverage media landscape. You cannot do anything about blurbers who are stretched thin and can’t read your book. You cannot do anything about closed bookstores or conservative bookstore orders. You cannot do anything about a global pandemic, outside your own house or community.”
The energy and focus you bring to your story. And doing that well requires the opposite of thick skin. It involves having skin thin enough to put all those deep emotions on the page. It requires being vulnerable in your writing, letting real human emotions shine through, even (especially) when it’s scary.
Even Great Work Gets Rejected
I’m not going to tell you a story about someone who received 12 agent rejections before finding success. I’m going to tell you the truth: good stories, publication-quality, moving, well executed stories get rejected all the time. An editor just signed something too similar. The market just shifted from last week’s hot topic to next week’s hot new thing (see Paranormal Romance, Dystopian, New Adult, and many other examples). The editor who loved your work couldn’t get it past their boss/sales/marketing.
These things happen all the time. So if they happen to you, you’re in good company. Don’t take the subjective passes as a sign that something was flawed in your work and quit just before you sub to the editor who would have totally gotten your story.
Once you stop trying to control the outcome of your work, that thicker skin won’t be necessary anymore. The mental space taken up by worrying about things you can’t control can be put to good use working on honing your craft and learning to be vulnerable on the page. Sure, you’ll commiserate with friends and loved ones when the rejections come in. But you’ll keep writing. Keep submitting. Keep trying to learn and improve. And eventually, you’ll find that magical yes that will make all that painful, vulnerable thin skin worth it.
PS - This essay originally appeared on The Writing Cooperative in 2021.