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The Dunning-Kruger Effect 21 April 2012

Posted by Camille Gooderham Campbell in Advice For Writers.
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I’m not making this up.

From Wikipedia:

The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than average. This bias is attributed to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their mistakes.[1]

Actual competence may weaken self-confidence, as competent individuals may falsely assume that others have an equivalent understanding. As Kruger and Dunning conclude, “the miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others” (p. 1127).[2]

I have no doubt that this interesting effect applies to every area of life, but I was particularly struck by its relevance for writers.

Given the grey area where formal grammar and creative licence intersect, and the degree to which each reader’s perspective colours the reading experience, there’s no objective and measurable way to define what constitutes “good” or even “competent” fiction writing. We tend to “know it when we see it”, and when we read the work of others — especially published work or in the context of a critique group — consensus can validate our impressions. Even then, there’s debate: select your choice of wildly-popular novelist reviled and sneered at by at least half the writers you know on Facebook… is everyone who loved those books wrong, or is it a matter of taste?

I’m not saying that all fiction is good if you just look at it right. Mediocre-to-poor writing does exist. But would you recognize it, if it were yours?

When it comes to assessing one’s own writing for quality and skill, there’s no grid or checklist to apply; even writing-class “rules” are only general advice and current fashions. Killing all the modifiers and avoiding the passive voice doesn’t automatically produce great writing, and being structurally on trend for 2012 doesn’t guarantee popular appeal now or in the long term. So is that glowing feeling of I-just-finished-writing-the-most-awesome-thing-ever the satisfaction of a job well done, or the Dunning-Kruger effect?

Apparently Dunning & Kruger and some other psychologists did some further research, and came up with this (again from Wikipedia):

They conclude that the root cause is that, in contrast to high performers, “poor performers do not learn from feedback suggesting a need to improve.”[4]

So, first, find some feedback. Join a serious writing group/critique circle (not a mutual-praise-and-smoke-blowing club). Pay a reputable editing/critique service to assess your work. Submit stories to publications that provide editorial feedback. Participate in a workshop or go on a writing retreat that includes an instructional/critique component.

Then learn from the feedback. Don’t be That Writer (everybody knows one) who refuses to hear anything but praise, argues with editors about why a piece was rejected, takes offense at suggestions for improvement, and generally thinks every last comma and modifier and dialogue tag was divinely inspired and embodies perfection.

Above all, for your own sanity, try not to spend a lot of time thinking about how your abilities stack up against everyone else’s. Writing is a solitary pursuit — in the dark hours, it’s easy to project imagined levels of competence (or lack thereof) onto one’s perceived competition, and assess one’s own skills accordingly.

The good news is that if you’re about to burn your latest manuscript on the assumption that you’re totally outclassed, you’re probably wrong.

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Comments»

1. shgd - 22 April 2012

Wow Camille. This would be perfect to run at some point at FFC. Excellent. Now I’ll be able to give myself a break next time I feel like hiding in the closet!!


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