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.

There Are Steps to This Dance

November 5, 2018

The learning curve of your writing career, if you want to save time, should look like this:

1) Craft
2) Productivity
3) Marketing

The order matters. Learn to tell a story well, then learn to produce a body of work, then learn to sell. Master where you are before you move on.

Otherwise, you’ll produce a stack of badly crafted books, or spend a fortune on advertising such a small number of titles that you have no chance of breaking even.

If I were to choose sources for these three stages, they would look like:

1) Rebecca McClanahan & Robert McKee
2) Rachel Aaron & Chris Fox
3) Kboards & 20Booksto50K

What is my wish for you?
Write well. Write fast. Sell books.

Sam at the beach

How to Succeed When You Don’t Have a Clue

July 4, 2015

I’ve been around the block enough times to have accumulated a few successes and failures – in writing and elsewhere – and some of those have surprised me. Stuff I thought would work, didn’t – and some of my long shots came through. So I wrote this list. There are plenty of “How to Succeed” lists on the internet… but at least mine is only three bullets long.

1) Reject “knowledge.”

The world is much more complicated than we think. Theories about how something should work are nice for making us feel less overwhelmed, but if you fly by theory, and can’t understand why you aren’t getting anywhere, throw the theory away. What’s more: don’t replace it with another theory.

“Imagination is more important than knowledge.” — quotable physicist Albert Einstein

When smart people fail, they often spin their wheels in endless analysis. Dumb people don’t bother with this — and that is the advantage in being stupid. Most failure is random, and burning time trying to track down the imperfection in your technique (polishing your resume yet again, revising your novel yet again) doesn’t pay as well as just taking another random shot. Dumb people can clean the floor with intellectuals, as long as they’re persistent.

2) Don’t give up.

I’ve taught mathematics for years, and I can report from the trenches: intelligence isn’t what gets good grades. Persistence does. A+ math students push through confusion, get over frustration, and keep on going. The students who fail are the ones who never learn how to climb over that wall. A lot of my job is helping students manage their frustration, so they don’t give up.

When I’m hammering away at troubleshooting a computer, I’m always open to being surprised. I’ll try anything — even stuff that seems illogical — because too frequently, that is the stuff that works. Aside from taking good notes (so you don’t repeat yourself), what pays here is creativity. Are you crazy enough to keep trying new things? If not, and you are truly stuck, you’re shackled by theory — see #1.

Change one variable — even randomly! — and try again.

3) Google it.

I know that some think the internet makes us less intelligent. I’m amazed by this opinion, because from what I’ve seen, the internet adds thirty points to the effective IQ of billions of people. This is on my short-list of reasons I’m excited about the future of the planet. If you can use a search engine, you’re as competent as any expert was thirty years ago. Actually, you’re as competent as all of them.

“I google everything!” — quotable hacker Samy Kamkar

(I don’t mean Google literally — that’s insane. Have some self-respect and use something more private, like Startpage or DuckDuckGo.)