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‘Grow a Thicker Skin’: The most irritatingly true piece of advice to authors?

Dealing with bad reviews as a writer is part of the job. Anyone who thought they were going to write something beloved by millions with no criticism is the same person who expected to retire on the royalties from their debut.

But the only piece of advice we have for authors dealing with bad feedback is: Grow a thicker skin. And it’s true – you can’t let every one star ‘boring’ ‘didn’t care’ ‘is this author an idiot?’ comment stop you from achieving your purpose. You’re there to write stories, and more than ever, we live in a world where social media gives people the right to say whatever the hell they want from the safety of their keyboard.

There are a few tips writer friends have given, and a few I use when dealing with the low feelings when you get bad reviews:

  • Firstly, don’t go looking for them! Every author knows Goodreads is the place where lower ratings and bad reviews thrive. Goodreads, in many ways, is for readers, not authors. Don’t punish yourself!
  • Go and look at the bad reviews of your favourite authors – it reminds you that we’re all in this together.
  • Rant about the hilariously bad/mean reviews with your writer friends – again, you’re part of a community of which this is a standard experience.
  • Look at your good reviews, or the positive emails. I’ll always remember one review I had where the person said they were in hospital whilst their dad was ill, and reading my book helped them take their mind off it, and even laugh a couple of times. That has stayed with me and nourished me even as the negative reviews try to chip away.
  • Remember those times where you’ve read a book that just wasn’t for you – it’s not personal, it’s just taste. I’ve read books that everything about them was great, and I should have enjoyed them, but I didn’t. I, like most authors (I assume), I don’t write bad reviews – if I don’t like the book I don’t review it. Let the people who love something spread the word. If I didn’t like it, I’m not going to waste time pulling down something someone else has worked on. The same way I don’t walk into my friend’s home and tell them how much I hate their new kitchen.

 

But what happens when growing a thicker skin isn’t enough?

I kind of thought I had my whole ‘responding to criticism’ thing sorted – I know how to deal with feedback, bad reviews and I avoid Goodreads like the plague. I have a whole self care system in place for if I need to deal with bad feedback.

But sometimes, we are sensitive, soft beings, and however thick your skin is, a punch in the gut is a punch in the gut. If you’ve worked hard on something, spent your time and energy and passion pouring into something, only to have it rejected and dismissed or vilified – it’s going to have an effect. Humans with thick skins are still humans, and telling writers to ‘just grow a thicker skin and get over it’ sometimes doesn’t work.

I am in a phase right now where I’m looking at the book I was once proud of with a sort of shame, where I don’t really want to look at it. I’m trying to focus on my other books, I am desperately trying to write enough to get me going full time, and even though I’m driven and determined, I’ve stalled. Every time I try to write, it’s like pressing a bruise. I’m still doing it, I’m retaining my thicker skin and trying not to let it stop me, but that thick skin has been a little bruised and scarred.

But perhaps that’s how we thicken our skin – with scar tissue. Every setback and failure and rejection, every dismissive word and angry response – that is what builds thick skin. It’s not just pulling on a coat to protect you from the world, or turning out the light so you can’t see them – it is moving forwards, step by sluggish step, sometimes skipping, sometimes dragging a boulder behind you.

At times like this, I freewrite about my ‘why’. Why do I write? What keeps me writing? What could stop me? And it’s this last question that gets me, because without even pausing – nothing could stop me from writing. It’s my therapy, my creativity, my escape, a dominant part of who I am.

So telling authors to have a thick skin is, unfortunately, still the correct advice. It’s a hard world out there, and putting something creative into the world feels like putting something vulnerable and soft into a harsh space. It feels like hanging your poor, soft heart out on a ledge and seeing if people squeeze and poke it. But hearts are strong – they’re muscle, and whilst you feel those squeezes and pokes and bruises, you are becoming stronger and more determined.

You have a reason for writing, and when you put your work out into the world, you are a warrior, someone brave and strong. Protect yourself, look after yourself and remember that every bruise and scar you feel is your skin thickening, until, one day, you won’t feel those bruises at all.

Protect your why and keep on writing.

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