Do You Need a Thick Skin to be a Writer?

Rather than answer a question this week, I decided to just talk. Lately, I’ve been seeing a lot of discussions online about having a thick skin and how writers need to have one to be successful.

I have to respectfully disagree, if only for the reason that I don’t have one and I consider myself to be successful. When I was a child, more than one teacher assured me that I would develop a thicker skin as I grew up, but I suppose I didn’t inherit the thick skin gene because it didn’t happen for me.

If having a thick skin means not really listening when someone criticizes your work, that can’t really be a positive thing, can it? I do listen to the people who don’t like what I do because I can learn from what they have to say. When a client does it, that means I need to change something or perhaps even generally be more careful, and that’s not a bad thing.

A person who turns you down for a gig may be giving you some information that you need to know. Maybe you need to change your approach, update your samples or get some more experience before you take a run at that opportunity again.

No one likes being criticized – me included. It can be hurtful and I do let myself feel that. What I don’t do is let it paralyze me into not trying again or refusing to see the truth that may be hidden in the message.

The person doing the criticizing doesn’t know how thick or thin my skin is. I don’t have a thick skin but that same trait means that I bring some other traits to the table like empathy and patience because that is what I hope to get from others that I deal with. Add in the determination to keep trying to give clients what they need and a dash of ambition (otherwise I wouldn’t be challenging myself to try new things or improve what I do), and the lack of a thick skin isn’t so much of a factor.

If having a thick skin means that I stop really listening to the people I am interacting with, then it may not be such a desirable trait.

What do you think? Do you have a thick or thin skin and how much does it matter in your work?


19 responses
  1. Tracey Avatar

    No one likes being criticized – me included. It can be hurtful and I do let myself feel that. What I don’t do is let it paralyze me into not trying again or refusing to see the truth that may be hidden in the message.

    But that’s what having a thick skin MEANS for a writer. Not failure to listen–which I’ve found far more often with people who are too sensitive to tolerate any criticism of their work. And having a thick skin certainly doesn’t mean that criticism stops hurting. It means that you keep on going and keep trying to improve, to find ways of using criticism (which, you’re right, no one wants to hear) to make your work better.

  2. Kate Pesich Avatar

    I think a writer’s skin should be a semi-permeable barrier. Thin enough to let the good critique in, but thick enough to keep the kind of criticism that decimates self-esteem out.

    Sometimes the people who are criticizing the work has no idea what they’re talking about–other times they’re giving you a gift in taking the time out to help you see where it could be improved.

  3. Jan Bear Avatar

    As you say, it depends on what you mean by thick-skinned. When I was a kid I would dissolve in tears when I was criticized. I had to be thicker-skinned than that. Listening and having compassion are about focusing on the other person and not on whether MY feelings are hurt.

    But too much or the wrong kind of defensiveness can shut others out and cut off what you need to write well, so, yeah.

    Thought-provoking post. Thanks.

  4. Michelle Avatar

    Having a thick skin means that you don’t take the criticism personally, not that you don’t listen.

    Not having a thick skin is when you get some one that runs away to find a nice (re: ego boosting) group or to hide and never write again, or who decided that that no advice is worth it because it is hurtful. That’s thin skin taking the critique personally.

    That doesn’t mean that you can’t ignore something or deal with it when it is a personal attack…it usually isn’t though.

  5. Terreece Avatar

    Great post Jodee!

    I define having a thick skin differently than using it to ignore feedback. I think being thick skinned is akin to putting on professional armor. It allows for distance so you can respond in a professional matter. It’s taking the criticism of a blog comment, etc. and looking at it objectively, determining what you can improve on, and in some cases what criticism is just plain wrong. It also keeps you from giving yourself a heart attack from both criticism and critiques by keeping your blood pressure and response on an even keel.

    I think we both have the same idea we just define the phrase differently. There are writers who want to give up after a few rejections or start an Internet war over a comment or post. Developing a thicker skin means “Hey that rejection letter sucked, but that’s the biz, who’s next on the list?”

  6. Rob Avatar

    Well said, Jodee! It seems to me that developing a thick skin is an unhealthy defense mechanism and reflects a lack of self confidence. I know that when I’ve been stung by criticism and reacted with an “I don’t care what they say” attitude, the criticism has usually had some merit. When the critic misses the mark, it doesn’t faze me.

    As I write this, I’m trying to choose my words carefully, because I know I am writing to an accomplished writer. A part of me worries about misspelling something (did I spell misspell right?) or not expressing myself clearly. I think that’s healthy, as long as it doesn’t stop me from clicking the “Post Comment” button.

    As they say, we learn from our mistakes, not our successes.

  7. dan Avatar


    I think the problem lies with categorizing people. What are the rudiments of a thick skin? What is a person with an onion skin?

    They’re vague labels and not very helpful.

    It might be easier to say, “this person does not listen to me.” or “this person has no qualms about writing for or against very sensitive issues”

    As writers, we hold thoughts in our heads and we try to elegantly vomit them through various mediums. Vitriol and passion are what drives writers to write, not the lure of money.

    Of course, this is different with freelance writers who write for pay.

    When it comes to people who use their words and exchange them for money, it would be best to evolve according to the wishes of the client.

    If a client wants a thick skinned writer then good. If a client wants a sensitive and onion skinned writer then good.

    With that said, thanks for the interesting post 🙂

  8. Meagan Spooner Avatar

    I was very much taken aback by this post. I can’t imagine that anyone who knows anything about the business would ever say “develop a thick skin” to a writer with the intention that they stop listening to criticism. That’s not even the meaning of the metaphor.

    The phrase is not “turn a blind eye” or “turn a deaf ear” to criticism–it’s “develop a thick skin.” The advice is not to ignore criticism, but to avoid letting it wound you personally, in your soul and your heart and your love of your craft. Your skin absorbs the blow. You learn from it, you keep moving and growing. You keep writing.

    The thickness of your skin has nothing to do with your ability to see, hear, and understand. It has everything to do with not letting rejection and criticism cut deep and cripple your passion.

  9. Noemi Twigg Avatar
    Noemi Twigg

    “If having a thick skin means that I stop really listening to the people I am interacting with, then it may not be such a desirable trait.” -> I prefer using the term thick-skinned in the sense that you are able to handle criticism better and that you are less sensitive (although not totally impervious) to criticism. This does not mean that you stop listening to those around you. In this sense, I think that being thick-skinned can be an asset in our line of work. Just my two cents.

  10. Robert Greenshields Avatar

    Nice post Jodee. I think one of the big problems with writing is that deep-down everyone believes they can do it so they always have an opinion on it. That can sometimes mean feedback comes across as criticism. I think having creative skills often seems to come hand in hand with being over-sensitive to perceived criticism. Being able to move on from feedback you don’t like won’t necessarily make you a better writer but it probably will make you happier and wealthier.

    Best regards


  11. Laura aka Wordphix Avatar

    I had never heard this perspective before, and I must confess that it reassures me significantly. I have never had very thick skin, and to look at that aspect of myself as a good thing is quite a fresh and helpful look. Thank you.

  12. Jeanne Avatar

    You do need a thick skin – but ignoring criticism is absolutely NOT what a thick skin means. It means listening to criticism/feedback but not taking it personally. The problem is that many people assume feedback or criticism is personal – “What? But I’m a GENIUS.” The best response is to listen, sift through the feedback, take what you want and leave the rest. Now saying that, do I always do that? No. Sometimes rejection stings to the point of hurting! But as a PROFESSIONAL writer, you must be able to deal with criticism, feedback, and edits without tears or temper tantrums, without letting it haunt you for a week, and without getting your feelings hurt. To me this is the mark of a true professional.

  13. Nancy Passow Avatar

    I agree with Jodee that we should never lose our emotional side and stop listening to the people we interact with, that is part of who I am. But I also agree with Noemi. One of the things I’ve had to learn as a writer is that criticism of something I’ve written doesn’t mean I’m a bad writer but that what I wrote doesn’t meet the needs of the client (or the potential client). When I send out a proposal for a writing project and it’s not accepted, my first reaction has often been “they don’t like me, I’m a failure”. I’m getting much better at being more objective (which could be the “thicker skin”) and looking at it as it’s them, not me. And there have been times when an initial proposal wasn’t accepted, but down the road a different proposal was and led to a very successful project.

  14. Carol Avatar

    I vote ‘have a thick skin’ — I mentor too many writers who have problems the opposite way — they’re crushed by that rejection letter, or the story that comes back covered in red ink.

    Agree with those above that I don’t think of the phrase the same way you do exactly…and agree with the semi-permeable barrier idea. That’s about right.

  15. Aaron Poehler Avatar

    “If having a thick skin means not really listening when someone criticizes your work”

    I can’t figure out how or why you made this assumption, and it derails your entire argument. That’s not at all what it means, even slightly.

  16. Terreece M. Clarke Avatar

    This discussion is great! The great thing about writing is that perspective really shapes our opinion of the craft and the business side. I’ve missed nice healthy discussion on the site.

    Thanks for keeping it civil FWJ. Public discourse in general has gone downhill as of late, I’m glad debate can still happen here.

  17. Debra Stang Avatar

    When I first started writing, I was so shy and thin-skinned that I could barely stand to show my work to friends and family, let alone to professional editors. I knew if I wanted to be a professional writer, I had to get to the point where I could accept constructive criticism but screen out nastiness, mean-spiritedness, sarcasm, and all the other little “gifts” that sometimes come along with criticism. It was a slow process, but today I’m not afraid to submit work anywhere. I know I can handle whatever feedback I receive.

  18. Jodee Avatar

    Thank you to everyone who has taken the time to share their ideas. It’s been quite a while since we had such an active discussion here, and you guys are making some very interesting points.

  19. kinny Avatar

    good list thank share

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