Is Your Writing Terrible… Or Is It The Dunning-Kruger Effect?

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Dunning-Kruger effect

If you’re feeling like your writing isn’t very good, you might be stuck in the Valley of Despair — smack in the middle of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

There’s a subreddit I follow (r/writing), which I recommend if you’re into that kind of thing. It’s a nice community, with lots of writers asking questions and sharing advice. The other day someone asked a question, one I’ve seen several times on the forum: “Do you ever suddenly feel like your writing is terrible?”

My response was (paraphrasing), “Yes. I’ve been writing professionally for 20 years and it still happens to me. Don’t give up.” Dozens of other writers offered up similar sentiments. (It’s one of the reasons why forums like this are helpful, because you realize it’s not just you.)

But that question brings up another; one that’s perhaps more interesting: Why do so many writers feel this way? And here’s another: Is this phenomenon only limited to writers and writing?

The good news is, if you’re feeling like your writing isn’t very good, it’s likely is that your writing is fine, you’re just stuck in the Valley of Despair, right smack in the middle of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

You’re probably familiar with the Dunning-Kruger Effect even if you don’t know it by name. It’s the phenomenon where people with a little bit of experience think they’re experts while people with more experience undervalue their own abilities. (Or, as Bertrand Russell once put it, “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.” Or to put it yet another way: the more you know, the more you realize how little you know.)

And no, it’s not limited to writing. My guess is when you read the words, “people with a little bit of experience think they’re experts,” you probably immediately thought of someone at work.

Although this isn’t entirely related to my article, I just have to share how David Dunning and Justin Kruger’s now-famous 1999 study, “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments,” came to be, because it’s too amazing not to. They were inspired by the real-life story of McArthur Wheeler, who covered his face with lemon juice and then proceeded to rob two banks. Why lemon juice, you ask? Because he knew lemon juice could be used as an invisible ink, and therefore, he reasoned, would make his face invisible to surveillance cameras.

OK, so how does this relate to your writing? Well, there’s a graph that helps to explain this:

Dunning-Kruger Graph

When you first start learning a new skill (in this case, writing), your confidence grows quickly because you start learning all the Known/Unknowns of writing. These are things that you knew you didn’t know. (They’re different for everyone, but might include basics like grammar, spelling, plot, character, etc.) But you take a writing class and you start to learn these things and you feel great because one-by-one you’re knocking out every single one of these known unknowns. And you start writing and you love everything you write. Boom! NaNoWriMo comes along and you crush out a 50,000-word novel and still have four days to spare. BOOM! Next thing you start writing is your acceptance speech for whatever award they’re inevitably going to throw at you.

But then something happens. You start to become aware of Unknown/Unknowns: Things that you not only didn’t know, you didn’t even know they were things you needed to know. (Unknown/Unknowns are different for everyone, of course, but some examples might include things like structure, character arcs, point of view, metaphor, symbolism, query letters, etc.). Suddenly, when reading works by other authors, facets of their writing that may have previously gone right over your head now hit you as amazing and inspired and you start thinking, “How am I ever going to master this? OMG, I’ll never be as good a writer as [fill in the blank].” Or you finish writing your first novel and you start querying agents and you get rejected over and over again and whatever professional feedback you get is negative and you start to feel like you don’t know anything.

That is the Valley of Despair. A lot of writers, upon entering this valley, simply give up, and I get it. Only a few weeks/months ago, they were feeling so confident. Now, they’re realizing they are really still a beginner.

But the good news is: it’s not just you. It happens to everyone. And it’s not just writing. It’s in art and business and politics and work. This is a known phenomenon. And if you look at that graph, you can see that if you keep working at it, your confidence will rise again. You just can’t give up.

From my own experience, if I were to adjust that graph, it would be to make that curve to the right of the Valley of Despair jagged. Because it’s not a straight rise in confidence and ability. You’re going to have days when you’re still unsure of yourself.

Ira Glass, the host of This America Life, offers up another way to look at this problem, and it’s now known as the Taste/Skill Gap.

Nobody tells people who are beginners — and I really wish somebody had told this to me — is that all of us who do creative work… we get into it because we have good taste. But it’s like there’s a gap, that for the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good, OK? It’s not that great. It’s really not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not quite that good. But your taste — the thing that got you into the game — your taste is still killer, and your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you, you know what I mean?

A lot of people never get past that phase. A lot of people at that point, they quit. And the thing I would just like say to you with all my heart is that most everybody I know who does interesting creative work, they went through a phase of years where they had really good taste and they could tell what they were making wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be — they knew it fell short, it didn’t have the special thing that we wanted it to have.

And the thing I would say to you is everybody goes through that. And for you to go through it, if you’re going through it right now, if you’re just getting out of that phase — you gotta know it’s totally normal.

And the most important possible thing you can do is do a lot of work — do a huge volume of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week, or every month, you know you’re going to finish one story. Because it’s only by actually going through a volume of work that you are actually going to catch up and close that gap. And the work you’re making will be as good as your ambitions. It takes a while, it’s gonna take you a while — it’s normal to take a while. And you just have to fight your way through that, okay?

So, take it from me and Ira Glass: If you’re feeling down about your writing, we get it. We’ve all been there and some of us still go through it, even though we should know better. But keep at it. Don’t give up. Besides, according to the Dunning-Kruger effect, your writing is better than you think it is. Unless you think it’s amazing, in which case… you know what? Never mind.

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10 COMMENTS

    • I too have that wish to rewrite every tenth sentence even well after publication. But somehow you just have to decide to SHIP your umpteenth draft or you’ll never get that book published. Tough if you’re an inveterate procrastinator also.

  1. Scott, this article was right on time. I just published my third book. I decided to read it, and started to feel like, “is this any good?” I’m glad to know this is a phenomenon because I couldn’t explain how my confidence in my work immediately turned to self-doubt. I agree the more you learn, you realize what you don’t know. However, I think the ‘unknown’ is a must for any beginner. If you spend all of your time trying to learn all of the ins-and-outs with your craft before you start, you will never start. Also, not knowing everything keeps you from backing out of your dreams. I often think back on my first book, and if I would’ve known then what I know now, it probably would’ve never happened–and I’m three books in! I like to consider my first two books, works-in-progress or rough-drafts. My advice to anyone, keep going and don’t worry about what people have to say, the criticism usually comes from those who’ve never done what you’ve accomplished. Thanks again for this article, I’ve bookmarked it!

  2. “From my own experience, if I were to adjust that graph, it would be to make that curve to the right of the Valley of Despair jagged. Because it’s not a straight rise in confidence and ability. You’re going to have days when you’re still unsure of yourself.”

    True. I am an independent, part-time writer for three years now. I do everything myself. In my first year, I had four bestsellers in my genre. That got me Imposter’s Syndrome. I have 21 books out and now Dunned and Kruggered. Still a mid-lister and I don’t write to market. I explore writing in other fiction fields.

    Now, I have this terrible writer’s block and the fear that the next book won’t be as good as the others. I have readers asking me about the next books of my various ongoing series. Where I used to write 3,000 to 4,000 words a day (rough drafts), it’s now at 500 to 1,000. It’s not easy being an author, even if you love writing.

  3. This is an interesting interpretation of this psychological effect, however, you’ve left out half the definition either by accident or design. Many people never realize or are unable to accept their writing is bad because “the cognitive bias of illusory superiority derives from the metacognitive inability of low-ability persons to recognize their own ineptitude.” In other words, they don’t have the intelligence to figure it out. And a good thing for BookBaby and other similar pay to publish businesses and the multitude of author(?) support services who prey on these misguided individuals.

  4. I would have liked to have read this eighteen months ago. Maybe I wouldn’t have wasted that time feeling sorry for myself, realising my inadequate skills and pushed that bit harder. Great advice doesn’t need to be on a schedule, I guess.

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