Writing with Thick Skin: When to Accept or Reject Feedback

Writers everywhere hear the sage advice to grow “thick skin.” If you can’t abide rejection, others tearing apart your work or hearing that your baby is ugly, find another occupation. Yet as you grow into your writing life, it’s also important to learn when to take feedback to heart and when to kick it to the curb.

Writing Tip for Today: Let’s talk about how you can learn to discern good suggestions from not-so-great editorial ideas.

Consider the Source

The person who gives you feedback will tell you a lot about the quality of critique. If an agent or pro editor makes suggestions, writers are more likely to heed them. Those who work in the publishing industry are more likely to have the kind of experience that should benefit your work.

If you consistently receive super-harsh feedback that attacks YOU through your writing, beware. A writer who is grinding an axe might give you critiques that are more about them than your writing.

Equally unhelpful is the critiquer who insists on haggling about “nits,” making a big deal out of spelling, punctuation or capitalization. A third type of unhelpful feedback might come from writers who want to rewrite your work to suit themselves or those who admit they’d never read your genre.

Of course, productive or non-productive feedback can come from the rawest new writer or the set-in-my-ways editor who’s older than dirt. As you strive to improve your writing skill, take into consideration the feedback giver’s experience, then move on to our next category.

Consider Your Goals

No matter who gives feedback or how sure they are that their way is “right,” every writer should review the writing goals the piece points to. Many times, when I begin to assess my goals for a piece, I discover ways to refine them. Especially after receiving negative feedback, I want to clarify my goals. At the very least, a reader didn’t see what direction I was shooting for.

If you’re a Pantster (that is, you don’t outline much or plan your work), you may not even really know your goal at the draft stage. If your feedback seems at odds with your gut instinct, be grateful for the opportunity to make sure that goal is clear by the final version. Cry over it for 24 hours, then get back to work.

And if feedback is very different than what you anticipated, you may even find a better goal, focus or slant that improves the work. Be open to discovery but don’t bow to feedback unless it feels right.

Give it Time, then Decide

Knowing when to accept or reject editorial feedback is a skill in itself. The critique that today has you fuming or crestfallen or questioning yourself might look different to you after you think it over. I’ve had many editing clients who were strongly opposed to suggestions I gave, only to have them say—weeks or months later—“I hated your idea but now I see that it’s the perfect answer to my story’s problems.”

I have been that student time and again, too. I’ve ranted, cried or sulked after a critique that felt wrong or that I was embarrassed by, only to later on praise the feedback as perfect. I had to “grow into” the suggestions before I could accept them.

I’ve also learned that critiques that feel wrong can be just that: wrong for me or my work. One way I hone my skills is by reading widely and contemporaneously. If I only read classics, I won’t be able to stay current with what today’s readers demand.

Whether a good or bad bit of feedback comes from a top editor or a noob, ultimately, you, the writer, decide whether to take it to heart or let it bounce off your thick writer’s skin.

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

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