The Biggest Difference Between New and Successful Writers Has Almost Nothing To Do With Writing
If you don’t have thick skin or aren’t willing to grow it, you will not survive the writing world.
If you have ever met me in person, then you might know that I am intensely shy. I do not put myself out there, and I am happy with my small social sphere. It would be easy to assume that this is because I am an insecure person; at one time, I would have quietly and inwardly agreed with you.
As a writer, my aversion to submitting my work to bigger audiences than my dusty old blog quickly became a problem. Not only was I afraid of editors and what they thought, but the comment sections on digital magazines and social media left me frozen in dread. What if people hated my words? Would they also hate me? Would I get canceled? Would editors ever hire me again? The black hole of imposter syndrome got deeper and crazier until I realized that the main difference between the writers I saw as successful and me was that they had thick skin, and I did not.
How did these writers get so much confidence, and how could I grow my own?
Here is my guide on overcoming my insecurity as a writer.
Create some boundaries.
Setting up boundaries is a critical first step. Not only do you need to create a wall between yourself and anyone who throws you shade, but you need to set up boundaries between you and YOU.
By framing how you think about your writing, you can create thicker skin. For example, if you allow your writing to be an extension of your identity, then you’re in trouble. The second anyone critiques your work, it will be impossible to separate that criticism from yourself, and it will feel like a personal attack.
Your writing and you as a person are not the same things. Even if you are dumping out an emotional tome that shares personal trauma with the world, your words and who you are as a person need to be separated. Once you hit publish, you need to think of your work as work and not as a piece of yourself being submitted to the masses.
And that brings me to criticism.
Know the difference between criticism and insults.
Criticism is an act of judgment that focuses on literary or artistic value or merit. The entire point of it is to ask hard questions about the content under examination. As the creator, it is your job to listen to the criticism and use it to improve your skills as a writer.
Back in art school, a guest lecturer came to evaluate student work. The idea was that this thriving New York City artist would show us what it meant to be professionally evaluated. But what we got was anything but professional.
This asshole walked into the studio space where students packed the walls with their latest works. In came the fancy, expensive painter with authority and experience that we peasant students lacked. Do you know what his great wisdom was?
He walked in, took maybe one minute to look around, and said, “You’re all going to starve.”
Half the class cried. I became angry because this man did not give us any criticism. He gave us an insult. When he stood in that room, he could have pointed out all the ways that the works presented needed improvement. He could have also made some mention about what the struggling students had done well. But instead, he acted like a damn troll.
And that is a HUGE distinction to understand when you are creating work; not every opinion that comes your way is worth your time.
If the criticism doesn’t give you any ideas on what you did well and where you still need to do some work, then it isn’t a crit worth your salt. Ignore them.
But if the criticism does tell you something about where you succeeded and where you failed — no matter how terse it may come across — then it is valuable and worth pondering. It’s ok to ignore the delivery, to separate the signal from the noise. Listen for the information that you can use to be a better writer and ignore the messenger.
When you set up boundaries, make sure that one of the lines in the sand you create is to force yourself to actively ask yourself if the criticism you are getting is helpful to your growth as an artist. When people say, “I like it,” that is not helpful. Equally, when they say, “this sucks,” that is also not helpful. But if someone says, “You claim X, but I only see Y here, your point could have been better made if Z.” THAT is helpful, even if if you feel sucker-punched by it.
Get some friends who write.
In my experience, the best way to get used to that sucker-punch feeling when someone lobs a critique your way is to surround yourself with other creators who will be lovingly honest with you. I do not mean surround yourself with people who will only ever say nice things.
Create a group of people who will give you their time and honest thoughts about your craft. Thick skin can grow when you get accustomed to putting your work out there and cutting off your emotions to it. Remember what we said about separating your feelings from your work? Having a group of other creators that you trust can help you practice doing this.
Ask them pointed questions when they critique your piece. Don’t ask, “do you like it?” And avoid, “what do you think?” Instead, start thinking like an editor and ask detailed questions that will help you grow.
“Do you think the examples I use to support my claim are clear enough?”
“I am struggling with getting to the point; where do you think I should consider making cuts in the intro to make this a stronger piece?”
“The word limit is supposed to be 2,000, but I am stuck at 800. How can I expand this piece without it being just fluff?”
“I’ve been working on this essay for a few weeks, but it just isn’t coming together, and I’m not sure why. What stands out to you?”
Learn to be ruthless with your words.
As you learn to see through the emotional parts of criticism and to take what you need to grow as a writer, apply that same attitude to your drafts.
There will always be times when you write something that you love, but no matter how hard you try to work it, it will not seem to fit your piece. Try to begin the habit of deleting things that don’t work.
If you love how something is worded, then start a file for abandoned passages. You’d be surprised how many ideas for articles you can get from going back and looking through those bits and pieces.
What is that saying? Write drunk, edit sober? When you word dump, don’t stop yourself from how those words flow out. But when you’re finished, give yourself permission to slash and burn as much material as you need to. This is how to shape your piece into a remarkable piece.
There is no fear in red ink. Learning to edit with a keen and merciless eye will help you become a much stronger writer.