Of the rules we’ve critiqued thus far in this series devoted to evaluating the writing rules that Writer’s Digest asked a panel to comment upon, Rule 7—“develop a thick skin”—is even more critical to memoir writers than fiction and other nonfiction authors. After all, you’re laying it out for all to see—your lifelong behavior and thoughts.
Author Steve Almond agrees with this rule. He says, “The key to making it as a writer—as any sort of artist, actually—is developing the capacity to question your decisions without succumbing to the opera of self-doubt. You have to recognize criticism and rejection as a necessary step in the process. Being thin-skinned (i.e., defensive, resentful, arrogant) is not an option.” No matter how you react privately—tears, resentment, anger—ultimately you should calm down and consider the criticism because it can help you. “If nine out of ten readers think your opening page is confusing or your plot never goes anywhere,” Almond continues, “they are almost certainly right.”
Writer and writing teacher Sheila Bender thinks there’s a way to break this rule and still tease out the critiques that will help you polish your writing. You won’t need a thick skin if you ask your test readers for specific feedback: 1) “Ask trusted readers to let you know what words and phrases linger,” she recommends. “It’s easier to listen to what isn’t working when your readers have proved they were listening.” 2) Ask readers about the feelings they get from reading your story. They can express good feelings or say something such as feeling confused. 3) Translate any negative comments into helpful language for yourself. Bender says you should think of “too wordy” as “I feel overwhelmed here instead of clear about what is going on.” Accept “incoherent” as “something seems to have been skipped over; I miss knowing what it is.” And think of “awkward” as “I miss the writer’s voice.” With these “translations,” you can revise your work without feeling resentment toward your test readers.
Despite Bender’s advice to break this rule, when you do what she advises you are developing a thick skin. Accepting criticism in a way that helps you to learn and improve is the whole point of the rule. Don’t develop a thick skin in a way that lets comments roll off your back without bothering you. You do need to take readers’ comments seriously. But don’t take them personally. Understand that all writers need editors. For a memoir in particular, you will be dealing with criticism not only of your writing style but of the content itself. Some people you include in your story will not want to be there. They may get angry at you. But only you can decide whether to respect their point of view or write your life story the way you want to write it, despite what others may say.