The Dunning-Kruger Effect



I’m writing this post because I suffered, to some extent, from the Dunning-Kruger effect in the beginning of my journey towards becoming a professional writer (I still might do, but I’m pretty sure it would be to a much lesser extend). And I think it’s worth knowing about this sort of thing if you’re at a similar place writing skill wise (or any other skill for that matter).

Now, this post could’ve been called Why you need iron skin to get published, Why most stories get rejected, Why most submissions suck, or something similar. But it’s not. It’s called the Dunning-Kruger effect after the psychological phenomenon so excellently pinned by Edgar Degas’ quote above.

What this phenomenon comes down to at its core is the observation that people who aren’t very good at something, this could writing or painting for example, tend to overestimate their own abilities in said area. At the same time, as people get better at a certain skill, they tend to underestimate their abilities.

Staying with the subject of writing fiction, this means that professional authors or experienced amateurs/semi-pros who have reached a certain level of competency often (not always; the world doesn’t deal in absolutes) will doubt their own skills. Even after they’ve achieved some level of success they may suffer from anxiety about their writing skills, perhaps even from imposter syndrome.

On the other hand, beginning writers or writers who have dabbled for a while but never really done anything to improve their skills will likely fail to see their own short comings. I’ve read a fair bit of amateur fiction the last couple of years, and I can attest to the truth of this.

Of course, there many writers with a more accurate assessment of their own skills and limitations, but, boy are there many too who gets a shock when people try to point how much they need to improve to get near writing at a publishable level. I believe this is also, at least partly, the reason why so many self-published authors struggle with understanding why their books don’t sell. Self-publishing has become very simple with ebooks, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy, at least not to do well.

Now, this post isn’t meant as a bashing of all those out there who have lofty ideas about their writing skills. Not at all. It’s meant as a cation that you be in for a nasty surprise and advice that you don’t give up when you get some rough feedback.

I wish I’d gotten this advice when I started, and I wish I’d heard about the Dunning-Kruger effect.

The first time I gave fiction writing ago I hadn’t really be a reader for more than a couple of years, and not an avid one at that, but I’d fallen so much in love with science fiction and fantasy that I decided try my hands at dabbling a bit.

I didn’t dream about becoming a professional author back then, and I hadn’t research the tiniest bit about what it took to create great fiction. Well, I knew what I’d written wasn’t any good, but I figured: hey, I’m a pretty smart guy (see, Dunning-Kruger effect), I can create something that isn’t utter crap. So when I showed it to my, at the time, girlfriend, I wasn’t expecting her to laugh out loud at the few lines I’d written (they weren’t meant to be funny).

With that humiliation in place and without the drive I have today that compels to keep writing, I didn’t try my hand at fiction for another three years or so. (If you think this is bad, try listening to Nebula Award winning author Eric James Stone talk about how a rejection letter kept him from writing for ten years!)

When I finally figured out that this fiction writing stuff wasn’t just a passing breeze for me, it was something I could actually enjoy doing for the rest of my life, I was ready for the rough feedback.

Well… sort of.

I had done some research about what it took to become a pro author, I had studied what constituted good writing and practiced my skills, but I was still far from clearheaded about what level my writing was at.

I knew I wasn’t writing at pro level or anything, but I figured I’d gotten the basics down, consistent point of view, having conflict in every scene, realistic sounding dialogue. Yeah, well, I put a story up for reviews at the writing site I hang about, and I got some pretty rough feedback.

It was tough seeing people slam your writing like that, but it worked wonders in grounding me in the real world, and it taught me a lot about my weaknesses and about the importance of feedback.

I tried fixing the things the reviewers had mentioned, but probably my writing skills weren’t even at a level where I could fix that relatively simple flash fiction piece. I decided to submit to an online market anyway, but I did so with a clear my.

I knew it would get rejected, but I did to get that first rejection over with, to toughen my skin, to clear away the anxiety. And if it against all hope got accepted, then great, nothing lost.

Of course, it didn’t, but I didn’t bring me down and none of the rejections I’ve received since then have either.

If your just beginning your writing journey or your not quite sure what level your writing is at, I hope this post was useful to you. And if you have any stories about rejections or the Dunnin-Kruger effect you want to share, fell free to so in the comments.


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