Toughening Up

Writers are a sensitive group. Why do we get our feelings hurt so easily? Is it because through our writing we’re baring it all and being so vulnerable? (See last post.)

When we let others see our inner workings, dreams, and fantasies, we want so badly for them to fall in love with our stories the same way we have. We hold our breath, waiting, hoping, for their smile of delight and words of praise.

Often we get something like, “Thanks for submitting, but this just doesn’t work for me” or “You show potential, but you still need to work on developing your [characters, plot, writing skill, etc.].” Perhaps even more hurtful is when we don’t hear back at all.

Those tough responses knock the breath out of us and bring us to tears. And we find ourselves in despair, questioning whether we’re really cut out for writing and publication. After those kinds of letdowns, I’ve heard plenty of writers say, “This is just too hard and I’m not sure it’s worth all the pain.”

As you know from my posts this week, I’ve been getting feedback on the manuscript I recently finished writing. I’m doing whatever it takes to push myself harder. I’ve opened myself and my story up to scrutiny . . . and sometimes the feedback is hard to take.

This is the third book my freelance editor has critiqued for me, and she said this in an email in regards to her critique: A few times I thought I was being TOO harsh, but since you’re now a seasoned author, I knew you could take it.

Her statement made me realize toughening up is part of the growing process.

Many of us may start down the road to publication slightly naïve, not grasping the difficult climb that awaits. And when things start to get tough, we question our calling, we doubt our ability, we may even lose our fervor.

Instead of falling under the weight of hard feedback or rejections, we have to learn to shrug it off and not take it so personally. That’s easier said than done. When our writing is so intensely personal, it’s hard not to take the feedback personally.

But we all need to develop our writer calluses. The best way to let those extra layers of thick skin form is through continual exposure to hardship. If we walk away when it stings, we won’t give the calluses time to develop.

If we allow the hardships to hit us, we’ll eventually toughen our skin. It also helps to have a shift in the way we view the journey to publication:

Keep a humble opinion of ourselves and our abilities. Realize we’re usually not as good as we think we are. No one is God’s gift to the publishing industry. Okay, maybe there are a select few Rowlings, but most of us are NOT them.

Don’t blame agents and publishers for our difficulties. If we think they’re too picky, prejudiced, harsh, or controlling, we may miss out on the possibility that we need to change, not them. Maybe we still need to improve our writing abilities or find our break-in story. Remember, a well-written, saleable story will get noticed—eventually.

Understand the realities of the publishing industry. Know that it’s especially tough to get into traditional houses. Take courage from those who’ve gone ahead. I’m not a Rowling. If I can make it in, then with hard work and determination, you can too.

Realize we’re not the only ones going through hardships. It’s ego-centrical to think only bad stuff happens to us, that we’re the only ones facing rejections and harsh feedback. If we remember that MOST writers seeking publication are going through the same process, then we can take courage in persevering.

Any author serious about publication has to learn to take the harsh realities of the business. So, let’s get to work developing our calluses.

How thick is your skin? Do you still need to toughen up or have you already started developing calluses? What are some ways you've learned not to take the hard feedback so personally?


  1. I think I have calluses then WHAM, I'm back to taking it personally. Feedback is crucial in getting the manuscript right. I still need to work on the feelings. Excuse me now while I go lick my wounds. :)


  2. I have definitely developed some thicker skin....but I need some more work on really forming those calluses. I think hearing too much praise, for example, can start peeling those calluses right off. Then we hear some tough stuff again, and it hurts really bad all over again. So the praise, while amazing and encouraging and something we all need to's not always a great thing when it's too much, ya know? (and like you've said in the past....we don't learn much from the praise)

  3. I've been writing for so many years that I really had to develope a thick skin. I would never want to take anything for granted about this industry. As many times as I've read my work in literary magazines I never assume that a submission will equal publication. SOmetimes it does come down to an editor's tastes, sometimes the story needs to be reworked. My writing is not yet perfect. (whatever perfect is.)

    Developing that thick skin helps protect us. Nobody wants to be rejected on any level, but as writers we need to understand it is all a part of the writer's life. If you want to stay in the running you have to persist.

    Another great post, Jody!

  4. *grin*

    *I* think that I have thick skin. A few of my crit partners might beg to differ, LOL. I am a big "discusser" and I know this annoys people sometimes. If there is a comment I don't agree with or am unsure of, I like to discuss it. Some take this as me disagreeing:-) HOWEVER, I'm really not, though I totally see how they could think that!

    I really love feedback. I LOVE having those aha moments that a crit partner says, "try this" or "this doesn't work because ______" and the lightbulb in my head goes off where I see my crap for what it is.

    I struggle more with contest feedback, although am getting a ton better. Part of this is because the judge is anon and sometimes the comments don't meet up with the score, or just aren't that accurate. I get over it though. It's the reality of contests and if I'm going to enter it, it's something I have to accept.

  5. "toughening up is part of the growing up process"--that's so true. I'm still growing in the craft, so I have to accept that sometimes it won't be easy. But I hope that I'm like the kid that gets back on the bicycle after a fall and don't give up!

  6. I'm not sure I've developed many callouses just yet. I've got some rough spots that have potential, though. What I am learning through the constructive criticism I receive is just how badly I want to write. I'm learning just how much and how long I'm willing to fight to serve God with my writing and learn the craft so that others might see that writing eventually.

    My skin is thicker than when I started this process, for sure, but I'm not sure I'll ever receive the harsh criticisim and let it just roll off. If it didn't hurt, we wouldn't try so hard to improve, would we?

    So, I'll continue to let those callouses form, and hopefully, I'll learn what it takes along the way to push past them.

    Glad you're getting such great feedback on your manuscript, Jody! I know it's hard, but you can push through it. I'll be coming to you when I get my first full critique back. Maybe you can help me dry my tears.

  7. Great post, Jody! I love that you acknowledge it is a process. You also have to learn to think through the feedback to see what to take and what to ignore. There's also a stage where writers swing too far the other direction, assuming that whatever anyone says is wrong must be wrong. Learning to think about feedback critically and objectively is critical. You can damage yourself -- and your manuscript -- by accepting the wrong feedback as much as by ignoring feedback altogether. It's a delicate balance. Wish they made training wheels!

  8. I assume I am not making friends here, but the reason why so many writers over-react to critique is that most writers (and most other artists) I know are rather egocentric and slightly megalomaniac. (And I am no exception to this rule.) This, together with the sensitivity, makes us awfully difficult to get along with. Especially with other writers and people who critique our works... I have seen a few friendships end due to critiques that were taken badly.

  9. As always, a thoughtful piece Jody. No matter what we do in life, we all improve with coaching. If we consider feedback "coaching," then it's a way to help us in our practice, and ensure we improve in our craft. When I used to be a diver, I didn't like it when someone told me I was setting my arms wrong, or not piking tight enough. The reminder though, made me work harder and perform better, just as constructive criticism in writing should be a help too.

  10. I'm like that crazy bleeding boxer asking to be thrown back in the ring. Can't knock me out, but I'll wear my bruises proud. Yes, getting tougher. Learning, which is key and loving the fight.

    I'll be offline next week. Will miss your posts.
    ~ Wendy

  11. Wonderful post. I'm so glad someone else out there understands what it's like. Makes me feel not-so alone. I'm in the stage where I'm starting to get a few calluses, but for the most part, I'm still pretty tender.

  12. I guess I think of the "skin" as resilient rather than "tough"...I'm not sure that many of us ever develop callouses, because we need our soft skin (to pursue the metaphor) to write deeply. But you make an excellent point, Jody - about failures and disappointments helping us to build that capacity to bounce back and keep going. And your advice is fabulous, because it encourages us to look at what may be weaknesses in ourselves without a self-deprecating tone. Thanks for this fine post!

  13. I agree with what Carol said. Developing callouses is sometimes a necessary precursor to strengthening one's skin (for instance, when one begins playing guitar), but to remain simply calloused is not an attractive thing. Ultimately, the goal is to emerge stronger, more supple, and better able to make beautiful music on those strings!:-)

    ~ Betsy

  14. It hurts.
    Will it ever not hurt, though? At least a little sting?

    But thankfully,
    we can learn from it and make things better.
    People who can't see the movie in our heads need to point out inconsistancies and flaws, just like I do with a well-worn DVD I love, I see the flaws.
    But the director/producer missed them, because they were so used to seeing it that the flaw slipped under the radar.

    I've never suffered a BAD critique, just someone who didn't quite get what I was trying to say, or someone who saw a few flaws, but they were really nice about it.
    Never had an angsted agent roll his/her eyes at me and tell me it's least not yet :D

    Great post.

  15. I've got callouses, Girl, and have THICK skin as long as the critique is not mean-spirited. Have only had that a couple of times, and it did cause a blister in a critique group relationship for awhile, which thankfully God healed.

    Usual great post!


  16. Your posts this summer have been so inspiring. I was REALLY naive when I started writing, but I'm glad I was. God seemed to know how much information I needed at each step to continue without getting overwhelmed and quitting.

    I will probably always get butterflies when I send my work to cp's, agents, editors, or any other professional, but the advice is priceless. It's worth a little anxiety!

  17. I've still got a lot of harsh criticism yet to come my way, I know it. I know it will be tough, but I feel like maybe I can go into it with a realistic head. My goal is to come out on the other side, calluses and all.

    Your experiences and the things you share are certainly so, so helpful.

  18. I have developed a much thicker skin, but I am still an extremely sensitive person and get my feelings hurt easily. I just have to stop, look inward, check in to see whether what is being said has some merit, and then move forward.

  19. I can still be pretty sensitive, but I'm working on it.

  20. I liked the part about writing being a calling, and about how hard it is to continue to believe that sometimes. What makes it rewarding are those rare and wonderful days of self-confidence that punctuate the general slog. What do you do during the difficult ones to help yourself have faith?

  21. I am developing extra thick calluses. But, I still feel the sting when my editor makes a comment. Though I know its nothing personal and that she is just pushing me to give my best to the manuscript, it still hurts. I am a long way from toughening up completely, Jody.

  22. This is one of the hardest parts. I'm trying to work on my calluses by blogging on a group blog. Before now, I wrote my pieces, edited them and hit publish. Now I'm letting someone else edit my work and give critiques not just of the concepts and ideas, but of the actual writing. Ouchy. But it's good. I have to do this.

    Thank you for another great post!

  23. I will be forever grateful to my sister who supported my writing and acted as sounding a block for the beginnings of my book. She was so kind in asking questions about my characters and allowing ME to see the holes and imperfections in my story. As time went on I began asking HER for more indepth feedback and she expressed a concern over saying too much. She then commented about a year later that I had changed, and that not only was I taking feedback better (searching for it even), but that my writing had improved significantly. Sometimes the skin can come as confidence in our writing and story progresses and doesn't have to always be so utterly painful. Not that I haven't had feedback that was painful, but strangely it's always helped better my writing.

    My skin increased even more when I got conflicting feedback from two different readers. One really liked a part while one suggested I change it. That's helped me keep a healthy perspective on my writing and that sometimes it's not that the writing is bad, but comes across differently to the reader.

  24. I agree with Patti - I can take pretty much any opinion about my work as long as I know that my critic has my best interest in mind. That being said, I also try to be careful, even with partners who have demonstrated their toughness. I recently had to give one of the dreaded "you need to cut half of this material" critiques to a friend. I knew it would be hard to hear, but there's no way to make a crit like that easy. I'm glad that he knows that I want the best for him...he was able to hang tough, do it and improve that section of his work tremendously.

  25. I was naive in the beginning. I mean, I knew I wasn't great, but I didn't realize just how thick of skin I really needed. I'm sure, like Katie, I'll develop the calluses and then have them peel right off. It's all good though. I want to learn, so let the thick skin grow!

    I've got a question. Did you develop your thick skin through submitting and then rejections? Did you garner any rejections? I don't remember ever hearing about you getting rejected any. Just wondering if you experienced any.

  26. Jody-
    Thank you as always for this post. You are so right, the best way to build up a thick skin is to expose it to the blisters.

    I always hated the time of year when we started wearing flip-flops to the pool because the tender insides of my toes got blistered, but after a few days they healed up and I flipped and flopped along for the rest of the summer.

    Now that I'm grown up I avoid thong type shoes all together, but that stinks. All my friends are wearing these cute little sandals, but not me.

    I have a birthday coming up and I'm going to get a pedicure, buy a pair of thong sandals, and start sending out those queries! No pain no gain, right!

  27. I would so much rather have a harsh review than a wimpy one. When I was working in publishing, one of my editor friends looked at a short story for me. I told her to be ruthless. She handed it back to me COVERED in red marks, half afraid I hadn't meant what I said. But it was exactly what I wanted, and I learned so much because she was brutally honest. Editors are so busy that I was thankful she had taken the time to look at it at all. (Happy ending, too. A couple of years later she published a story and article of mine which were much better than my original story.)

  28. Honestly, I'm still working on it. But I *am* working on taking criticism and doing something with it! Thanks for reminding me that it's needed.

  29. Great post, Jody. That feedback is so necessary in order to grow as a writer. That's what I tell myself when I'm facing a harsh critique. That it's a window of opportunity to break through. It's not always easy but that's okay:-)

  30. I had the opportunity to ask an author what the most important things I needed to know off the bat were. Interestingly, it wasn't about craft. One of her answers: If I didn't have a thick skin, I needed to get one.

    To work on that, I joined a critique group through my local RWA chapter, and that's going a long way to toughening me up!

    I think one of the things to keep in mind is who's making the comments, especially the upsetting ones. We need to weigh the comments, balance them.

    The vampire in my book was accused by one crit partner of being a pedophile. She accused a different vamp in a flash fiction piece of rape. Hard to take, until I looked at all the feed back. She was the only one that felt this way. I dug a little deeper, she doesn't read vampire books, she's not familiar or comfortable with the genre. Those that were didn't see my characters that way. Her non-vampire feedback is good though, and helps improve my work, and for that I'm grateful.

    I'm learning as I go, but it's happening :)

  31. Kendra Leigh Patterson asked: What do you do during the difficult ones to help yourself have faith?

    My Answer: Kendra, that's a wonderful question. Ultimately what keeps me going is my love of writing stories. I think about stories even when I'm not actively writing them. So writing is a passion that I can't seem to let go of. It's also an outlet for me during the chaos of my demanding life stage. So, I guess I try to remind myself of why I'm writing and it helps me to persevere through the hardships.

  32. Sherrinda asked: Did you develop your thick skin through submitting and then rejections? Did you garner any rejections? I don't remember ever hearing about you getting rejected any. Just wondering if you experienced any.

    My Answer: I've had plenty of rejections from both agents and publishers in my writing career, especially in the early years when I was first starting out! Before Rachelle accepted me, I'd gotten rejections from all the other agents I'd queried. Fortunately, when Rachelle submitted my proposal to Bethany House they took me on fairly quickly. But the submission process was full of lots of negotiating and painful decisions about my writing. And in the end, they rejected one of my completed manuscripts.

    It's a long, tough road for all of us, even if it doesn't always appear that way!

  33. I'm a sensitive person, but I like to think I'm strong...if that makes sense. I'm quick to tear up at Hallmark moments or those heart-touching Mommy moments.

    I don't take rejections personally, but I do shed a few tears over the disappointment. I've learned to put on my big girl pants and move forward.

    Writers need to have teachable spirits and be obedient to God's leading. He places people in their paths to help them strengthen their craft so when the timing is right, He will bless them with opportunities.

    I'm toughening my skin, but it's still tender in places. I'm more apt to appreciate feedback sandwiched between what does work in my novel. "You suck" feedback rips my writing skin and allows my sensitive side to seep through. As is every stage of writing, this, too, is a process. Maybe someday I'll have calluses my Pedi-egg won't be able to remove. :)

  34. I think anything that involves our heart has the potential for deep hurt.

    In order for characters to be real, in order for emotion to be real in stories, authors have been given a unique, powerful ability to feel, to empathize, to experience...well, pain. Lovely, calling, eh? :)

    The trick to surviving and thriving in any art, whether its writing, painting, music, design, whatever... is two-fold, in my view:

    First, be committed to feeling everything fully. Even the pain. Not numbing out, or pretending it doesn't hurt. Staying sensitive rather than hardening our hearts to protect ourselves. Art cannot be rich without the sensitivity of the one holding the brush. So we have to stay sensitive, have to stay vulnerable, or our future art will suffer.

    BUT, we also have to have a fierce and pragmatic commitment to loving truth more than our own opinions. And loving those we serve more than our own comfort. So if someone critiques our work, and in our guts we know there's truth there, then we resolve that we will love the recipients of our work enough to pay the cost required. Re-writes, re-works, scraps and patches and re-sewing it all together again.

    It's costly work. But through it, we are remade, too. Not to be calloused, necessarily, but to be wiser, richer, and more love-driven than the revision before.

    May God give every one of us the courage to love stronger, and grow faster in our art, so that it lifts us His people in the best and most beautiful way possible!

  35. Oh terrific post, Jody! Great advice. :)

  36. Jody, thank you for a very well timed post, especially for me this week as the query letters are starting to roll out and I'm expecting the form rejections to start rolling in. Excellent words of wisdom here from someone who has 'been there, done that', has learned from the experience and is willing to share it with us. Thank you...

  37. Thanks Jody! I appreciate your honesty. I didn't know how far along you were in your early writing years, so I wasn't sure if you had gotten to the point of querying. Loved your answer. :)

  38. Jody, kudos on another great post. You definitely have your finger on my writerly pulse--and many others' I'd say, as the comments would indicate.

    I enjoyed reading the comments today as much as the post itself. Thanks to all who've shared for your great insights.

    Adventures in Children's Publishing said, "There's also a stage where writers swing too far the other direction, assuming that whatever anyone says is wrong must be wrong."

    I've struggled with this. Early in my journey, I felt obligated to accept every comment my CPs made and experienced a sense of guilt when I didn't. After a while, I realized I don't expect them to use all my suggestions any more than they expect me to use all of theirs. I've been learning to be more objective as I assess their feedback.

    Rosslyn Elliott said, "I can take pretty much any opinion about my work as long as I know that my critic has my best interest in mind."

    What an important point! If I keep in mind that my CPs and agent want what's best for me and my manuscript, I can view their comments with less apprehension and more objectivity. This helps me view their feedback with a more open mind and be less likely to take things personally.

  39. I'm trying to develop some calluses. :-)

  40. I've started to toughen up quite a bit. Usually, rejections on a query don't phase me too much. But rejections on fulls or partials sting.

  41. Sometimes, in my "real" life, I feel like I get beat up a lot. In fact, I got some horribly strong criticism last week, questioning the basis of all of my research, rendering it completely invalid and useless. That was harsh.

    But, honestly, I love writing, and I don't *love* my research. If none of my editors/critiquers go so far as to tell me that my writing is useless, then it will never be as bad as what I heard last week. I'll just remember last week and think, well, it could be worse. At least these people are trying to help me. :)

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  43. My skin's pretty thick. I've yet to run into a crit partner that can leave a dent. Editor feedback tho--that could be different. So far, nothing's really gotten to me, usually because rejections tend to come with only a snippet of feedback and not really enough to feel carved up by it.

    I suppose if someone was hardcore and told my my writing was pathetic, I may have a hard time with that, but otherwise I do okay with taking feedback.

    Harder to take are the close calls, the 'we loved this but...' ones.

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

  44. I just love your posts. You seem to know just what I need to hear. Keep up the words of encouragement. You are a blessing to me! :)


  45. I'm very sensitive. Not so much in hearing criticism for my writing, but in life, completely. Hopefully hearing more constructive criticism will help me take it better in life!

  46. I like how you point out that it is only through putting ourselves out there, exposing our vulnerability, and experiencing rejection that we develop the skin to keep going. The other alternative is to shrink back in fear. Knowing others have faced their fears and doubts, and kept going anyways is inspiring, and what I try to focus on when I begin to freeze in fear of self doubt.

  47. I keep trying to have thicker skin--I think that was the first thing I was told to do when I decided to write seriously.
    And remembering that all of us at some time will go through the down times is very important.

  48. I find your blogs so inspiring and encouraging. Thanks for posting. I joined your blog and intend to read all your posts. Have a great day!

  49. I've been with my critique group over 2 years. A part of me still holds my breath when I post a chapter for their critique. They can say anything to me and when I get a bunch of redlines back, it doesn't hurt so bad. However, I know I need to get tougher to face the opinions of the rest of the world.

  50. I keep telling myself it's all proof that I'm a real writer.

  51. My skin is thickening, but every now and then I get a big owie that takes a day or two to heal. I take my pain to Jesus, asking for some encouragement. He always comes through.

    A few days ago I noticed my checker at Walmart looking worried. Turns out her 11-year-old grandson was in the hospital with meningitis. I took her hand right there and prayed for him; I didn't care who noticed. As I walked to my car, the Lord said, "This is why I put you on the earth, to minister to people like that."

    All my owies flew away right then.

  52. When I was younger criticism was difficult to take, but now I'm older my passion to write and succeed has outgrown my timidity. Not everyone will like my work, but that's ok. I have to write and if I get helpful criticism then all the better to improve :)

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  55. For me, it still hurts every time I get the 'thanks, but this isn't for me...', but only for a moment. Then I file it away in a folder and mentally say, "Next!"
    What I really have to go back to is... that is not the agent that God has in mind to be my books champion. I believe that. Of course, that may be my 'Pollyanna' self coming through, but it's what keeps me rewriting my query and sending it out again. Without the belief that God will make it happen with the right person, I don't think I could keep doing it.
    I'm glad you didn't stop!

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