Writers, Beware the Dunning-Kruger Effect

December 29, 2018

First, you know some stuff. Second, you know that you know it. Third, these are two different psychological phenomena.

That’s the essence of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, which is the failure to understand the extent of your own knowledge or competence. If you fail to accurately assess how good or talented you are, that’s Dunning-Kruger.

This is often thrown around the interwebs as an insult: “Look at that buffoon who thinks he’s so smart! What arrogance! Classic Dunning-Kruger Effect!” This is how I first saw it, and so I paused to look it up.

(No, the insult was not directed at ME.)

Wikipedia describes the ur-example of the bank robber who soaked his face in lemon juice so the surveillance cameras would not see him. Because that’s how invisible ink works, right?

This actually happened. To grasp the D-K aspect, imagine his friends telling him that his plan would never work, and he rejects their advice. He scoffs at the fools.

(This is important. D-K is about the failure of feedback. More on this in a sec.)

The other side of D-K is “imposter syndrome,” when, for example, truly skilled and competent writers doubt themselves and their work. Talented people can fail to grasp their talent, and see themselves as frauds. If they receive praise, they think it’s some sort of mistake or fluke.

What about you? How do you avoid delusions of grandeur as people laugh at you behind your back? Or… how do you avoid being overpowered by your own self doubt? In essence, how can you truly know whether or not you are a good writer?

It’s about feedback. When you get it, believe it. And if you’re not getting it, seek it out.

(Not your mom’s feedback. Sorry.)

Do you have a critique group? I’ve been meeting with my group, the Legion of Plume, for years, and one thing they showed me is how I never miss a chance for an unclear pronoun antecedent.

I used to haunt critique.org to get advice on every short story I wrote, and I learned a ton from writing hundreds of critiques for other writers. The site started in 1995 and has expanded to include all genres.

Are you sending your work out to markets, so editors can see it? I’ve got rejections going back so many years, some of them came in the mail. Be glad you no longer need to send stamped return envelopes to magazines. Now, with email, the humiliation is free, and that’s an innovation I welcome.

If you’ve done the above and your work is published, are you reading your public reviews? This is not for the squeamish, but Chris Fox recommends taking your reviewers seriously and listening to their advice. Your Amazon reviews might make you a better writer.

It’s a daring thought. For me, the calls for a sequel in the reviews for New World inspired me to write Hair of the Bear. And more importantly, I used those reviews when crafting the sequel, noting the elements that people liked in the first book so I could include them.
Finally, to overcome the dangers of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, ask yourself this: am I a better writer than I was yesterday? Work each day on improving your skill set and productivity. Take a tiny step forward today, and tomorrow, and the day after that, and your fate as a writer will take care of itself.