With the summer now officially over, we all go back into school mode, sharpening our pencils and our plots, renewing our commitment to writing. As artists we never stop learning, and many of us take advantage of the many conferences, workshops, classes, critique groups, MFA programs, beta readers, and more to master our craft.
Handing your writing over for feedback always sounds good in theory, but when it comes right down to it, it takes courage and confidence to hear others criticize our stories without complaint, even when the comments are helpful and constructive and kindly given. Even we know they’re right. Maybe especially when we know they’re right.
That said, learning to take the good feedback, leave the bad, and get on with the hard work of revision is crucial to becoming a career author. Whether you’re reading your story aloud at Bread Loaf or exchanging notes with your best writing buddy, you need to develop a skin thick enough to deflect the slings and arrows of harsh assessment and permeable enough to absorb the wisdom of relevant observation.
Developing this thick skin is so important, according to my pal Michael Neff, poet, author, and founder of the esteemed Del Sol Review, that he prepares the writers who attend his acclaimed New York Pitch Conference by giving them what he calls THE THIN SKIN TEST (see below).
Note: I often serve as a workshop leader at this quarterly conference, so I’ve seen firsthand the direct feedback from agents and editors that participants receive. It’s invaluable, but it’s also intense. I can see why Michael created this. And I asked him if we could reproduce it here, as I believe it could benefit any and all of us as we take in criticism from teachers, editors, agents reviewers, readers, and our fellow writers.
Fair warning: Michael’s approach is not for the faint of heart. But then neither is a career as a writer.
THE THIN SKIN TEST
By Michael Neff
In case you’re not sure if your skin qualifies, we’ve developed a few skin test questions below. Feel free to respond to yourself as you read each one. We desire to work exclusively with writers able to take fair and direct critique from the professionals, and we also wish to avoid time-wasting instances of Offended Writer Syndrome (OWS) which often take place in writer workshops all across America.
- Has any writer ever prefaced their critique of your work by first saying to you, “Don’t hate me, please?
- Do you sense that writers who unfavorably critique your work are “loading the gun” and taking aim?
- Do you rush to defend your work when a reader gives you criticism rather than absorb and weigh it carefully?
- Do you feel a need to say unkind things about a writer’s work if you perceive she or he was unkind to you first?
- Have you ever chastised any writer for what you consider to be improper or incorrect critique of your work?
- Have you ever been in writer workshops and reacted to criticism of your writing or story by demanding the other writer defend their decision in such detail that it served your purpose of making certain they never gave you unfavorable critique again?
- Do you receive critique you oppose in good humor, but routinely seek the negation of it from those you know will agree with your version of reality?
- Do you feel a bout of OWS coming on after reading the above questions?
- If you answered yes to two or more of the above questions, the New York Pitch Conference is definitely not for you.
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MICHAEL NEFF is the founder and chief architect of Algonkian Writer Conferences including the famous and highly successful New York Pitch Conference. Michael’s first novel, a literary historical entitled All the Dark We Will Not See, was published by Serving House Books, and an urban fantasy, Magician’s Impossible, was created, co-edited by him, and published by Macmillan Books.
His latest novel, Piper Robbin and the American Oz Maker (pseudonym Warwick Gleeson), was chosen by an editorial panel at Kirkus Reviews to be a Top 150 Best Book in its 2019 Fall Preview issue–both digital and print format. The novel was also an Amazon Best Seller in spring 2019. Its prequel, World Maker – The Ascension of Romanova, won four national book awards for SFF, including first (SF) and third place (F) in the Beverly Hills Book Awards. Michael is also an accomplished poet and short fiction writer, and his work has appeared in national literary publications such as North American Review, Quarterly West, Conjunctions, and The Literary Review, among others. His literary journal, Del Sol Review, has published hundreds of poets and writers since 1998.