Writers need tough skin but shouldn’t forget to moisturize

image Welcome to a free, unsolicited (perhaps even unwanted) excerpt from my latest book, “Pearls of Writing Wisdom: From 16 shucking years as a columnist,” a book 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 excerpt was originally inspired by a good blogging friend who, like many of my friends, has asked to remain anonymous. So we’ll just call her Michelle, a talented writer who emailed me after experiencing 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 each 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 once 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 50, 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...

49 thoughts on “Writers need tough skin but shouldn’t forget to moisturize”

  1. Some people are just looking to be offended, by anything. I kept a particularly nasty anonymous note that arrived in the mail. It wasn’t related to writing but as a reminder that one person’s perception of me could be SO wrong. If they’re wrong, others can be wrong. And if they’re right, then I have work to do! Plus it’s good for a laugh!

  2. You can keep your coffee. I’ll have tea. Yeah. I can just see it: some buffoon reading something Michelle wrote and deciding that they’re going to make her day as rotten as they feel, spewing some of their “stuff” on her. No one put a gun to their head and made them read. Although, if that were to happen… (Sorry. Don’t even know where I was going with that one. Just feeling defensive because, ya know. Michelle.)

  3. Dear Ned,
    I SO remember how you helped me in that situation. (Thank goodness you kept me anonymous!)
    Seeing you write about it here brought back all the feelings of gratitude I had then and still feel now. You have a gift and have yet, in my opinion, to ready anything that is blatantly hurtful. That said, I learn more about people each year and with each rich experience. It’s almost impossible to know what will strike a nerve (fruitcake??) with an individual. Because of your advice, before I ever hit publish, I always asses and reassess my intent.
    Side note: I love your book! I’ve read it all the way through, and now use it to prime my writing sessions- I just pick a page and make it my mindset for the day. Thank you for all that you do!
    Michelle — your often accidentally naked, fruit cake hatin’, sophomoric humor lovin’ friend 🙂

    1. I remember reading your message and feeling how important it was to make sure that person’s comment didn’t hurt your spirit or cause you to question your voice. I was so glad you contacted me, and that we could talk about it. I can feel the confidence in the voice you have developed as a writer, and it makes me so happy — for you and those who have the chance to read your words 😉

      And I’m so glad you are enjoying the book. There were several parts that were inspired by comments we exchanged here. Your enthusiasm was one of the reasons I decided to do the book, so thank you for that.

      And whether you’re accidentally naked, carrying fruitcake or laughing at a fart joke, I’ll always appreciate your friendship, Michell… I mean ANONYMOUS! (Sorry)

    2. I just told Ned that he totally inspired me, and I lied. (Sorry Ned.) It was both of you that just inspired me. Thanks for the brain candy that got pulled into some scrumptious taffy. Raspberry. There’s plenty for everyone.

      1. What?! Raspberry taffy?! Brain candy?! You know candy causes cavities?! Cavities are holes that eat away what they attach to! Everyone loves candy! You know reading this can cause people to crave and partake in your raspberry taffy brain candy, and you will be responsible for rotting their brains!

        Besides, how many raspberries were injured in the making of this taffy?

        See? I know how people can upset themselves so easily over nothing! I work at a grocery store!

        Oh good! The guy with the gun to my head left after he was certain I read this…. whew!😅

  4. Hmm, interesting. Had a similar blog experience when a reader was outraged that I’d run a piece on the author Lewis Carroll. The language used to vent disagreement by this particular blogger was so offensive that I deleted the comment thread from my blog. Of course, this caused the blogger further outrage that he/she was being censored. Damn right – my blog, my house style. I’ll argue with the best of ’em but I don’t tolerate the language of the gutter…in my book, resorting to this (especially in print) means you’ve lost your case from the start.

  5. It is reasonable to surmise we will eventually say something or do something or write something that will offend someone. That is if you are willing to make yourself vulnerable to a point of putting your work out there. That is where I get hung up. I have fear but I know it is all part of it. “Those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind”… Bernard Baruch. Just have to keep that in mind…..

  6. My there’s so much to be sanctimonious about. Courtney is right; sooner or later … I think you handle these situations well. Try to cast a cold eye on the situation to evaluate whether you have been offensive or not and go from there. That’s all you can do.

    And btw, I support the fruitcake-free alternative lifestyle. No fruitcake bars or clothes choice for me. 🙂

  7. Oh, well, hate mail is the price for writing humor. You have to believe in yourself and not worry about those who take pleasure in putting down the work of someone who is trying to bring joy to others… We will always have critics.

  8. Ned, I love your humor and your backbone. I think you’re brilliant and hilarious all rolled into one. Maybe because I’m a free-spirited, non judgemental person who looks for the humor in everything, those types of posts make me laugh, Some people just take too many things too serious and need to loosen their neck ties. I love that you own your stuff, knowing their was no malicious intent. The right ones stick by us. I can’t wait to read your book on my long awaited vacation! Yes, there will be reviews! 🙂 🙂

    1. Thanks so much, Deb. It makes me think of something a waiter once told me when, as a young man, I had just started waiting tables. I had this horrible customer who was obviously trying to impress his date by belittling me. My waiter friend told me: “That A-hole is someone you only have to deal with for an hour or so. He has deal with being an A-hole every day for the rest of his life.”

      That is something I’ve never forgotten, and applies just as easily to people without a sense of humor or who are uptight.

      By the way, I hope you enjoy the book and really appreciate your kind words and constant support 😉 Have a great vacation!

      1. Great advice Ned! It’s so true, we see only the moment that ruffles our feathers. Life is too short. You don’t like my writing, move on. We’re never going to please everyone, but to change our style would be to lose those who appreciate our work because of how we are. Thanks for the wishes. 2 weeks to go! 🙂

  9. Oh dear some folks really do take life too seriously. I do not, and never intend to, like you at my age… I’m set in my ways. LOL!! A little fruitcake humour doesn’t offend me, even if I am quite partial to eating it! Still eating my way through my Christmas cake….

    1. Given that you said “humour” and called it “Christmas cake,” I’m assuming you’re outside the U.S. — which means your fruitcake is probably wayyyy better! Either way, I agree with you; life is serious enough without getting mad about something like dessert. Thanks for reading, Marje 😉

  10. A wise man once told me “not everyone is going to like you”. (I still don’t understand why, I am quite likable). And I have come to terms with this. What was never really clear to me is why there is nearly always such cruelty associated with their dislike. I generally stop reading when I see I don’t care for where something is going. And when something is so very clearly humor?…….I just don’t get it. I guess some folks are just wired that way and the rest of us need to tolerate them…

  11. Definitely necessary to read today–not everybody will like what you have to say and not everybody will like your humor. Very very true–much of my sarcasm can go over some people’s heads in writing (but verbally comes across very well). I had my own concerns about driving habits in a previous post of my own–maybe you’ve written about something similar: https://thechattyintrovert.com/2016/11/07/003-who-the-hell-are-guys-in-their-souped-up-pickup-trucks-trying-to-impress-at-5-a-m/

    Maybe you know the answer.

  12. Hi!
    I’m new to this blogging thing, so I’m glad I read your post. So far, the comments I’ve gotten have all been positive, but I feel like this post helped prepare me for any negative responses I may have to deal with in the future (even if I don’t plan to offend anyone on my blog 😂)
    Thanks! 😊

  13. Trust me, I understand criticism, Ned.
    You’re looking at a guy who had to change his blog’s ENTIRE focus just to avoid battles with critics – who sign his paychecks.
    Critics suck…

No one is watching, I swear...

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