How thick is your skin?

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Have you ever struggled with how to handle criticism of your writing? It’s really not that tough if you can build up a thickened skin…

This week I had to write a difficult, sensitive letter to a professional colleague. Of course I didn’t send it without having it checked by a friend, first.

“Please be sticky,” I told the friend, meaning I wanted him to be extra critical in his feedback. He suggested deleting one sentence and adding another one. I made both of these changes gladly and gratefully and my letter was much stronger because of them.

I’m lucky enough to be very thick-skinned when it comes to accepting criticism of my writing. It’s liberating. If you’d like to have the same devil-may-care attitude, here are three principles you should understand:

  1. There’s no such thing as “good writing” or “bad writing” — or, if there is, it exists only at the extreme margins. Whether or not someone else likes your writing usually comes down to a matter of taste. (De gustibus non disputandum est  is a Latin maxim meaning “In matters of taste, there can be no dispute.” In other words, everyone’s personal preferences are merely subjective opinions that cannot be right or wrong, so they should never be argued about as if they were.) There can, however, be certain types of writing that are appropriate for certain purposes. For example, academic writing needs plenty of citations; popular writing does not.
  2. Criticism is not about you, it’s about your writing. You are still a worthwhile person no matter what anyone says about your writing. Anyone who suggests otherwise is neither a good critic nor an effective editor. (But before you dismiss that person, ensure that you’re not the one being overly sensitive.)
  3. It’s not sensible or logical to argue with anyone about their opinion of your writing, especially if you’ve asked them for their views. Instead of arguing, simply say “thank you” and consider what they’ve told you.

Accepting criticism becomes easier with practice. I attribute my currently happy-go-lucky attitude to years of having been screamed at by an abusive boss when I worked in the newspaper business. Now criticism rolls off me like water off a duck’s back.

I didn’t appreciate it at the time but I’m very grateful because I’m now comfortable letting my writing be improved by other people. You might want to aim for the same attitude as well.


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