Writers should develop a tough skin (but still remember to moisturize)

image Welcome to Ned’s Nickel’s Worth on Writing, that special day each week when I offer writing tips that Publishers’ Monthly has called, “The last word in writing advice. Or so we hope.” And what 50 Shades author E.L. James has refered to as “The inspiration for most of my safe words.”

But enough accolades!

This week’s NWOW was inspired by a good and talanted blogging friend who shall remain synonymous, so we shall call her Michelle, who experienced her first truly negative response to something she posted. The reader in question was somewhat offended by what was essentilly a lighthearted post about accidentally being seen naked by a stranger. I felt Michelle’s approach was tasteful and humorous. Regardless, the reader’s response caught her off guard and caused her to momentarily question her judgement as a writer — something that readers of this blog question every day.

Anyone who puts words down with the intention of others reading them shares a part of themselves they hope others will either enjoy or identify with. When someone is offended, it almost feels like a sucker punch. If you follow me on Facebook, you know I received this note from a reader earlier this week:


The column was called For the Person Who Has Everything, Including Flatulence, and was about new underwear that offers a built-in flatulence filter. Considering the people I work with, I thought of this column more as a public service announcement. The reader, however, was clearly offended and “…can’t wait until Ned grows out of his sophomoric-humor stage.”

I’m 48, so chances are it’s not going to happen.

As I told Michelle, I learned a long time ago the only thing you can do when something you’ve written offends someone is to trade that sucker punch for a gut check by asking yourself a simple question:

Did I write this with the intention of being offensive?

If the answer is “No” and you have remained true to your own voice, then you can stand behind what you have written. If the answer is “Yes,” then you need to evaluate the direction you’ve taken and determine if it’s one you are comfortable with.

There is no “wrong” answer, only whether it’s right for you.

A few years ago, I wrote a column titled, Tips to combat FDAD (Fruitcake Disposal Anxiety Disorder).

Admittedly, I picked on fruitcake a little.

OK, maybe a lot.

Here’s a sample…

“…Recent studies show that mild depression after the holidays is not only common but, in many cases, the result of FDAD — Fruitcake Disposal Anxiety Disorder. On one hand, your fruitcake was a gift and therefore deserving of some measure of appreciation. On the other hand, it has already become a chew toy for the neighbor’s pit bull. This often leads to feelings of anxiety long after the holidays. So as a service to our readers, we are offering the following self-help guide: I’m OK—You’re OK. But Give Me a Fruitcake and I’ll Kill You…”

Too strong?

Some people thought so.

Fine, a lot of people. In fact, in my 16 years as a columnist, I received more emails and letters (Yes, actual handwritten words on parchment and mailed) about this column than any other. There was no denying I had struck a nerve with a part of my readership that was potentially still intoxicated with rum.

Here’s one letter:


How did I respond?

I hung it on my wall, where it serves a daily reminder of how, as a humor columnist, I have an obligation to avoid Boca Raton, Fla.

Actually, Gaylesville, Ala., isn’t on my short list of vacation destinations either, thanks to an email I received regarding this column: Called for jury duty? Don’t forget your tinfoil hat.

In it, I talked about how frivolous lawsuits are souring people on the judicial process and undermining the importance of jury duty. The following excerpt apparently angered one Alabama woman to the point she hopes to be a jurist when I’m on trial. I’m currently checking to make sure I don’t have any warrents pending in Alabama…

“…I once found myself driving down the road with an 800-degree onion ring searing my flesh. I had just left a Carl’s Jr. drive-through and, after maintaining my composure long enough to exit the parking lot, pounced on my combo meal like a hyena at a gazelle feed — laughing and eating, laughing and eating. So, when I ripped into an enormous onion ring and felt the breading fall away into my lap, I had no one but myself to blame when my appetizer became a sizzling, onion-flavored chin strap that turned my frenzied laughing to screaming on I-5. In spite of this, I never once thought of calling a lawyer in an effort to seek damages against Carl’s Jr. and the Onion Growers of America for supplying me the means with which to be an idiot…”

Here’s the response from Alabama:

“Regarding Ned Hickson’s column about jury duty, I wonder if he would think a lawsuit against him for seriously injuring or killing someone because he was eating and driving would be frivolous? The least of his problems would be a burned chin from a hot onion ring. I, for one, would LOVE to sit on that jury. He should be ashamed of his blatant disregard for others who have to share the road with him as he has his lunch.”

One of the most rewarding things about being a writer is connecting with people. Even when it seems they’ve reached you from beyond a dead zone. Elated or enraged, it means a reader felt it was important enough to take time from their busy life (not counting letters from inmates) to let you know how they feel about what you wrote.

Isn’t that what it’s all about?

While it’s important to develop a thick skin as a writer, you can’t allow it to become hardened to the point you stop listening.

Or worse, stop appreciating.

Listening to and appreciating feedback — good or bad — can mean the difference between building a readership and losing one; building credibility among publishers or tearing it down; growing as a writer or becoming stagnant; playing dress-up when your wife is gone or finishing the next chapter.

You get the point.

As I told Michelle, not everthing you write is going to be everyone’s cup of tea.

Some of us prefer coffee.

I’d like to close with a comment sent on a postcard from Chattanooga, Tenn.

“Hey Mister: Yer humor has me laughfing [sic] way down in Cedar Bluff, Alabama. Drive truck for paycheck and drop off The Post all over S.E. states. Thanks for keepin’ me smiling.”
— ‘Stretch’

See? Alabama isn’t all bad.



(Ned Hickson is a syndicated columnist with News Media Corporation. His first book, Humor at the Speed of Life, is available from Port Hole Publications, Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble.)

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Ned's Blog

I was a journalist, humor columnist, writer and editor at Siuslaw News for 23 years. The next chapter in my own writer’s journey is helping other writers prepare their manuscript for the road ahead. I'm married to the perfect woman, have four great kids, and a tenuous grip on my sanity...

86 thoughts on “Writers should develop a tough skin (but still remember to moisturize)”

  1. I’m the Master of failure/rejection, so this is right up my alley.
    As writers, we’re tougher on ourselves than any critic ever could be.
    Michelle is bright, talented, gorgeous, talented, funny, cute, talented, and full of moxie.
    Did mention she’s talented?

    Anyhoo, she’ll be fine – once she takes something positive from this “rejection” and moves forward. That’s all I have.

    1. I agree on all points, some more than once. And yes, Michelle handled it with poise and the kind of introspection that is the hallmark of a good writer. It took me years to figure that out. And I’ll probably never have her legs.

  2. You can’t possibly not offend someone if you go out on a limb once in a while. My blog offends so many people (at least that is what I tell myself) that it causes my readership to be so low. Am I right? Well, at least I think that is the reason. Anyway, my wife hates my blog so that just proves that you can experience negative feedback and still move on. And fruitcake does suck.

    1. I would definitely go with that summation because it’s the only reasonable explanation. I, for one, have yet to be offended by any of your posts. I’m not sure what that says about me, but who cares…

      1. Means I’m not trying hard enough. I’m sure my earlier posts might have offended someone. But at least my imaginary stalker Cyndi still supports me!

  3. Differences of opinion are actually a good sign that you’re being honest. If you catered to everyone’s feelings by trying not to offend anyone, you’d soon find yourslef writing drivel – as proven daily by our politicians.

    Wel written Ned, and what the f*ck do you have against fruitcakes? Well, Well!? What’s your excuse for that one? For God’ s sake man, they make excellent doorstops, home invasion repellants (either when fed to the crminals or used as a blunt object to bash in heads), as a boat anchor, to stick under the bed corner when the leg beaks, or many other important uses.

    Oh, and I could have used those flatulance reducing underwear many times in life. I had to laugh when i read about their water absorbency characterisics. I have a story that is appropriate and reated to your work with the Fire dept. Many years ago when I lived in eastern Canada, the pulp and paper mills were big business. One particular mill in St.John, New Brunswick used to export partially processed pulp that was in a very dry form – it cut down on weight and size and was rehydrated when used at the end point for paper production. They had just finished loading a large ship at the docks when the ship caught on fire – one problem with very dry pulp. This was long enough in the past that the fire dept did not have foam products to use, only water. So the Fire dept arrived, dropped their suction hoses into the ocean and proceeded to fight the fire. The pulp, of course, absorbed every drop of water they sprayed on it and began to grow in size. they were focussing on the fire and didn’t think through the implications of the growing pulp until they heard a loud screeching cracking noise – at which point the hull seams of the ship split open from the pressure and the ship sank right at the dock. The firemen went home quite comfortable that there would be no further flare ups from the ocean floor. Ha!

    1. HAHAHAHA AAAHAHAHA! That is a hilarious story! I saw the end result coming but it didn’t matter! I’ll have to tell that one to the guys at the station! Just think of how differently it would’ve gone had the ship been full of fruitcake…

  4. Funny- you are an ass for bad mouthing fruitcake but it’s okay for that person to write and abuse you and swear at you. You just have to laugh.

    p.s. I love fruitcake

  5. Wonderful post. Writing does indeed require thick skin. But I can’t stop laughing over the fruitcake letter. Who has time to be offended by fruitcake jokes? Oh, if only I had that much time on my hands…

  6. Dear Ned,
    You are just one top-notch person and friend. Not only because you gave me some very good advice on what felt like a bad day, but because you always do it in the best way possible. Your honesty, integrity and talent is out of this world…right up there with that Hook dude you keep company with.
    I’m actually flabbergasted at the fruitcake note (REALLY? Does that person still have teeth?)
    But, the fact that it hangs on your wall as a reminder speaks volumes to the heart with which you write and live your life.
    Thanks for the call-out, the support, and most of all…for not sending me the fruitcake you keep threatening me with. xo

    1. Shucks, Michelle. I actually had to take a moment before responding because I couldn’t find the words. I feel privileged to call you a friend.

      You’re are too sweet.

      Wait… Have you been eating FRUITCAKE?!?

          1. OH WOW! You just pulled a major flashback trigger.
            That book sat on my mom’s shelf….I read every word hidden away in a corner so she wouldn’t catch me…I may have been 12?
            I named my son Dane for a reason 🙂
            (JK: but, that’s when I first read the name and liked it ever since!)

  7. I somehow missed the naked article of Michelle’s! I read it (it was hilarious as always) and popped back here before I go back to slog through all the comments.

    I loved seeing all those notes you received and am not at all surprised – there are far too many people in this world that take themselves (or their desserts) WAY too seriously. Seeing other people’s points of view is a skill that sadly, many don’t have.

    Since my blog is generally it’s my journal, there aren’t too many people who get all pissy about my content. If they don’t like it, I presume they just don’t come back. My stories aren’t for everyone (I know of one friend / blogger who was at first pretty uncomfortable with some of my, ahem, more explicit content). But on occasion I have written opinion pieces and I definitely pissed some people off – some weighed in on my blog and others, directly to me.

    Ultimately, it’s just my opinion. You don’t have to agree with me. I could be – gasp! – wrong!! But while I love a healthy and respectful debate, I also know when to chill the hell out.

    1. One of the things I love most about your posts, Ann, is your honesty. Some people can only take honesty in measured doses. Have I raised my eyebrows a few times? Sure. But only out of appreciation for your writing skills and ability to convey you feelings.

      I mean, it’s no fart-retardent underwear or fruitcake hating, but it’s damned good 😉

      1. Like you had to take a pause with Michelle’s comment, I did as well.

        I am humbled by your words. Last year a blog reader said they liked my “voice” and I responded by saying it’s just me because I know of no other way to write. I tend to see this as an example of my limitation as a writer (which is not a term I’m comfortable using to describe myself, either) – that I don’t have writing skill because I write as if I was sitting across from you, glass of wine in hand, regaling you with a story.

        It’s all I know how to do.

        But looking at your comment makes me think perhaps yes, I might be a “writer” (almost 400,000 words on my blog!) and perhaps have a “voice”.

        But yeah, no matter what, I am definitely not skilled enough to write about fart-retardent underwear.

        1. In my experience, the “conversational style” writing is the most difficult to carry off, mostly because you need to have an interesting “voice” to start with. You can learn grammar, devices and structure, but you can’t learn individual style.

          You have that.

          And I’d say after 400,000 well-chosen words, it’s safe to call yourself a writer.

          I mean, it’s not like we have jackets or something 😉

          1. There’s no jacket?! Damn. That was my whole purpose for all this nonsense. Really? How about a commemorative naked fireman calendar? No? Shoot.

            Thank you Ned, truly. I can honestly say you have made my day. xo

  8. Don’t let the fruitcake get you down! I understand, even though I just write to keep my brain greased up (but not with suet from fruitcake 😉 ). I once made a sarcastic comment about people who post every little thing about their lives on Facebook and got hammered. The joys of free speech!

  9. I have just started my blog and being new I am stuck in that ‘everyone must like me’ phase. Then came an opportunity a few days ago to poke the most defensive and humorless people about – the mothers. I came across an article by a mother to her childless friend where she whines through 5 paragraphs about how she can’t take her children to weddings. It was hilarious and I read it as super passive-aggressive. I have a lot of friends with children and I was worried about offending them so I felt I should ad a disclaimer. Anyway I took that risk, knowing how sensitive society is about this things, wrote it and stuck it up. I am glad I did it and so far there has been no rattle-waving lynch mob. It was fun tonight and it took my opinion virginity so that I can start writing more pieces in future. I needed this. Here is my piece https://howtowineabouteverything.wordpress.com/2015/01/29/letter-to-a-mother-i-think-i-may-be-very-unpopular-after-this/

    1. It’s so great that you did that and challenged yourself to stay true to your ow writing voice. Oftentimes, pushing boundaries expands our horizons. Unless it involves donuts. Then it expands something else.

      I will definitely check out your post 😉

  10. LOL. Especially the bit about avoiding Boca Raton…I’d give the whole state a pass…well, except for maybe Key West, or the Everglades or something LOL (born and raised in Florida :-P)

  11. Or, as Thomas Harris wrote: It rubs the lotion on its skin. But seriously, as they say, have an elephant’s hide to be a successful writer. In other words, always have an eeky-squeaky mouse on hand. That’s the only way I know of to get an elephant to hide, anyway. Great column, and keep writing, Ned (as if you need my sanction). 🙂

  12. I’m confused, is the underwear available for purchase or not?

    BTW: I’ve found that Bigfoot hunters take themselves quite seriously. At least that’s what I gleaned from the profanity laced responses I’ve gotten.

  13. I am extremely offended by this post. I have absolutely no reason to be offended by the post, which is about as good reason to be offended as, say, fruitcake mockery. Anyway, I think you should stay away as far away from North America as possible, because there’s no way I’m gonna tell you just where exactly I live.

  14. My “hate mail” is all appearance based, but I am used to that now.

    I can’t believe someone was offended by that post of Michelle’s! I wonder if their spouse works for FedEx and just gave them something to worry about?

  15. Thanks for the laughs! That fruitcake letter had me tearing up and trying not to choke as I tried to laugh silently. I’m at work, and well, they suspect but don’t KNOW how crazy I am. I don’t want to confirm it today.

  16. I’ve got that whole “how to alienate your readers” thing going on right now. But given that I’m in true life fairly off-putting, I reckon I’m being true to myself.

  17. Love this! I’m genuinely shocked you received hate mail on fruitcake bashing. It just goes to show you, if someone can get offended by THAT, people will get offended by anything. So really, you just can’t get worked up about negative reactions. Some people just don’t know when to turn a page! (Or maybe they’re forced to read with a fruitcake pointed right at their head??)

  18. Thank you Ned for your words of encouragement for when the negative comments come and people hurt our feelings with discouraging words. It will make one question their integrity as a writer. It was sweet of you to write a post in support of Michelle!
    Michelle! You are an awesome writer! Loved your story… love all of your writing. You are truly talented!! Keep it up darlin!

    1. My pleasure, Courtney 😉 We all need a little encouragement from time to time, especially those who put themselves out there on a regular basis through any form of expression.

  19. You did the flatulence note writing neanderthal a favor by correcting “sophomore humor stage” to “sophomoric-humor stage.” Way too kind sir. See that moisturizer is working. This was a LOL post. (aren’t they all?)

  20. You can’t make everyone happy, I suppose. Personally, I think people need to lighten up a little bit! Jeez, fruit cake is yucky. I tried so hard to eat a piece, and I couldn’t do it, Ned. I just couldn’t!!

  21. Great advice, Ned. I find the more I write, the more I’m afraid of offending someone. I will ask that question now in the future. BTW, you have very thick, albeit moisturized, skin.

  22. I love your humor and fruit cake but old fruit care has to go on the lawn for the birds to eat. I’m glad NZ dosent press legal suits for random shit. Jury duty sucks iv done it 3 times and the last was nasty memories I will never forget. Please keep up the good writing 😊

    1. Holy cow! That’s a definite blast from the past! The paper eventually folded about eight years ago after the publisher got really sick. cancer, I think? They tried making a go of it online after he passed away but it didn’t catch. It was too bad.I liked being in an “upstart” paper near the Bush Family’s home town.

  23. Loving your blog. Such a breath of fresh air (sans flatulence). Thank you for encouraging writers to stay true to themselves. If only more people carried that authenticity outside the blog community.

  24. Fruitcake: Every few years I am tempted to ‘try it’…again…someone’s Grandmother’s recipe, the best one they’ve ever had, this one is different, I promise you! To be honest, it looks festive enough, and occasionally it looks almost edible as opposed to condensed and dehydrated vomit. I try not to inhale as the bite gets close to my mouth. I don’t want to risk the scent of it, in case it triggers me to back away from the bite of fruitcake. Without fail, anytime I have had the morsel of fruitcake in my mouth, the result is all the same. I contract, I twitch; my elbow flies into the air as I double over and my knee jerks upwards. My hips buck forward, my knee buckles and my back arches. I twist sideways, shaking my head like a freshly skunked dog. My face contorts, my nose runs and eyes water. I start gagging like a cat trying to remove a logged hairball, all while trying to get the offending lump of chewy elephant snot out of my mouth, without touching it, seeing it or tasting it.. Then I have flashbacks for the next 10 minutes of what just happened as my body continues to spasm in post fruitcake convulsions. I have no idea why I react so violently to it. Or why I continue to ‘try’ new and improved versions. When I see someone purposefully taking fruitcake and eating it, I am truly amazed that it in fact, CAN be eaten and that other people can’t taste what I do or see what I see. Fruitcake? No thanks …I’d rather eat placenta.

      1. if zombies take over, i guarantee you it will be the last commercially prepared food left on the planet. like a bad tequila drunk which results in a 4 day hangover…me and fruitcake? never. again.

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