Sticks and Stones: The Highly Sensitive Writer Toughens Up

I recently attended a writing seminar about creating compelling titles for books. A burgeoning writer volunteered her book title for the rest of the group to critique. The consensus of the group was that her title wasn’t catchy enough and needed to be reworked. Several people in the group offered sage advice that would probably have helped her a great deal, had she been open to suggestions – but she wasn’t. The novice writer became incredibly defensive (and borderline angry) about the feedback. She was not ready to be objective about her work. The facilitator had to smooth things over and hastily get a more willing participant for the exercise.

Throughout history, even the most successful writers have to deal with criticism, so there’s no reason why we should consider ourselves immune to feedback. Check out these excerpts from actual famous author rejections from

  1. Sylvia Plath: “There certainly isn’t enough genuine talent for us to take notice.”
  2. Rudyard Kipling: “I’m sorry Mr. Kipling, but you just don’t know how to use the English language.”
  3. J. G. Ballard: “The author of this book is beyond psychiatric help.”
  4. Emily Dickinson: “[Your poems] are quite as remarkable for defects as for beauties and are generally devoid of true poetical qualities.”
  5. Ernest Hemingway (regarding The Torrents of Spring): “It would be extremely rotten taste, to say nothing of being horribly cruel, should we want to publish it.”

Ouch! So, how does one not get touchy about his / her work? Writers are still artists, after all. Artists are famous for being highly sensitive. Artists who have to self-promote themselves may find it incredibly awkward to listen to face-to-face or written criticism. Once I gave a book I wrote to a professor friend to review. He said. “Well, perhaps you should focus on writing things you know about, as opposed to rock stars.” It was a fair point well made, and my creative writing has become much more real as a result of sticking to what I know.

Boxer Flexing Her Muscles

Aside from writing, I also like to paint. One time, it took 3 months to finish a large 12×12 foot piece and I needed to get a moving company to deliver it to my showing – is my favorite long distance moving company for that. At one of my showings, I overheard a man telling his friend that my art might be best displayed at a fast food restaurant. “It’s convenience store art,” he said as I looked on, trying not to have any sort of facial expression. The critic didn’t know I was the artist or that I was in earshot. It stung, but feedback is still feedback and should be regarded as just that. It proved to be a valuable lesson – you can’t win them all. If you will accept nothing less than 100% acceptance, you will be plagued by disappointment. But here is the silver lining: You don’t need to win them all. You just need a percentage, and as long as you keep putting your work out there, the correct audience that appreciates you will find your work. It’s all about maintaining perspective.

Why does one need to develop a thick enough skin to withstand criticism? Because unless you have someone else to promote your writing on your behalf, it’s all going to be done by you. You will be the one going into the front lines to promote and defend and champion your own work. Confidence helps, so if you don’t feel you have any, then act as if you do. Pump yourself up until you start to believe it. If one reader doesn’t appreciate your writing, that’s okay – there will be others who will. Instead of harboring hurt feelings, why not just say, “There are other audience members in the literary sea. Next!”

How do YOU maintain perspective about your writing?

18 Replies to “Sticks and Stones: The Highly Sensitive Writer Toughens Up”

  1. I try to maintain perspective by not showing the people closest to me my first few drafts! I almost take critiques better when I’m not seeing someone face to face! Than, when I’ve already developed the necessary scab to take critiques, than I show people closer to me. I’ve figured that out more recently and I tend to do a lot better recognizing what flaws I need to work through!

    1. Nicole, that’s a great concept that many people are unable to follow, because they feel compelled to show their work to the people closest to them. Those people may or may not be qualified to provide helpful, constructive feedback, so take it with a grain of salt. Way to go and stay strong!

  2. Difficult, isn’t it? I *try* to remain objective – all critique comes in one of two forms: 1) constructive, where the input is meant to help (like your title workshop) and destructive, coming from a place of {jealousy, pique, anger, ignorance, pick your poison}. If you can recognise the source, you can accept the former with grace and the latter with plugged ears.

    1. Hello Tony, you’re right – being able to discern the motivation of the feedback is key. The good news is that there are just as many supportive people out there as there are naysayers – we just need to find our audience. Sometimes critical feedback can be invaluable, and if we can remove our sensitivities from the equation, it can help us truly improve and become great.

  3. When I put my work out there for feedback, I strive to do it with the attitude that I know it needs improvement and it will never be perfect. I have been blessed with a great mentor, DiAnn Mills, and awesome critique partners who challenge and encourage and support.
    When I receive negative feedback, I pray over it and study it and pull from it what improves my work. I ask God for the discernment and wisdom to honestly, and undefensively, evaluate waht others say and apply what makes my writing better.

    1. Having one or two trusted sources can be even more helpful to certain writers than an entire critique group. Stephen King suggests having one ‘ideal reader’ in place that represents your audience. He is blessed to have a wife who can assist him in this capacity, but any qualified, trusted advocate can bring you the same results. Thank you so much for your response, Henry.

  4. Learning to deal with rejection and criticism are keys to success for a writer, Kimberly, but every writer has to find their own way to do that. I just keep reminding myself that I have a lot to learn, and if I think of my readers as my customers, I need to take their feedback to improve my product. And as you noted in the case at the conference, a writer has to be ready to take feedback and be objective – learning to take a distance from our own work is a tough skill to perfect!

    1. Hi Jan! Thinking of your readers as customers is a brilliant move. And should a florist get upset because someone is allergic to their arrangement of roses? No. Roses are just not for everyone.

      It can also be useful to leave a manuscript in a drawer for a few weeks and take a break from it. Nothing will give you perspective like time and distance. When it looks like something I barely remember writing, I can be way more objective about it. If it’s too fresh in my memory, it’s fodder for a sensitivity flare up.

  5. Developing a tough skin should be in the Top 10 of every writing criteria. None of us knows everything, so maintaining a teachable heart is paramount to success. Thanks for a reminder we can all use. (And I loved the rejection quotes!) 😀

    1. Knowing we are in good company sure helps. There will always be the ‘outlier’ comments that really sting, but most feedback tends to be pretty sincere and objective. Gushing praise is great to hear, but it’s the constructive feedback that is actually helpful. Having an open heart and mind gives us more of an edge in our writing. Anita, you are always so generous with your time and comments – I really appreciate you reading this post. Thank you 🙂

  6. I liked what you said about the 100% acceptance. It’s impossible and I need to learn that lesson. Maintaining perspective is vital–hard but vital! Satan loves to whisper in our ear that we will never be good enough and that others don’t like what we write. We have to shut him up with prayer. Thanks for the encouraging words of wisdom.

    1. You are so welcome, Carole. It also helps to remember that since we as readers don’t enjoy 100% of the content that is already out there, it’s not realistic to think that we can capture 100% of our audience. That’s why there are a variety of authors and genres out there – and why we are able to celebrate that diversity.

  7. In my Writer’s Group, we strive for positive feedback, crafting our responses in such a way that improvements are gently suggested rather than errors roundly denounced. Sometimes I wonder if we are being too kind, leaving us all unprepared for the harsh reality of the publishing world. Other times, I’m thankful that they didn’t mention all the obvious plot holes in my latest effort, and promise myself to work harder on the next draft.

    1. Thanks, Rob, for your comments. Honestly, it takes a lot of courage to show your work to anyone at all (especially in the beginning). There’s nothing wrong with easing your way in to being open game for feedback. Sounds like you have found a great group that works for your needs – and that’s as individual as writing itself.

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