The Dunning-Kruger Effect and Writing

You may have heard of this phenomenon, but if you haven’t, here’s the short version: studies by Dunning and Kruger found that competence and confidence don’t always go together. Being a professor, I’ll give an academic example. Students who have the least knowledge of a subject often think they did best on the exam. They lack the foundation from which to question themselves and are amazed when they get Fs. Students who understand more of the material tend to be critical of their performance, in part because they assume others worked as hard as they did. Also, they know enough to know they aren’t perfect. Their sighs of relief when they get As and Bs are sincere. They had doubts. Confidence goes back up when students have real mastery, but not as high as the confidence of the truly ignorant.

What does this have to do with writing? I don’t know about you, but I had no idea how bad the first novel I wrote was at the time I finished it. The theme and the setting still speak to me, and the characters have potential. The writing, however, makes me cringe. I know enough to recognize its faults now and am glad I didn’t inflict it on anyone. Salvaging it would be more work than it’s worth.

Having reached competence but not genius, I’m now in the dip in the confidence curve. I’m stunned that my critique partners haven’t suggested major changes in my work in progress. They noticed places where I could improve it, of course, but I expected they would find problems in the plot, and they didn’t. They said the mystery works. Maybe it flowed well because it started with material I cut from an early draft of the book before it, Ghost Sickness, and because it deals with themes I care about: ethics, spirituality, health and illness, and the exploitation of desperate people.

Nonetheless, before sending it to the next set of readers, I’m going through it to see where it could tighten up further now that I’ve been away from it for a couple of months, drafting the book that follows. So far, I’ve kept myself from acting on the urges of the little demon in my head that’s telling me I should rearrange huge chunks and cut others. I can think of important scenes I almost cut from two other books, scenes which turned out to resonate deeply with readers, so I’m not giving in to the demon, but I wonder if I’ll be relieved or alarmed if the next set of critiques don’t tell me to tear it apart and start over.

Over the Easter weekend, I did my first ever book signing event. After ten years onstage acting and then twenty-odd years as a college professor, I didn’t have jitters about either the reading or the question-and-answer session. It was informal and enjoyable. I sold a few books and got feedback that I should narrate my own audio books, so I trust that my perception of success is not a Dunning-Kruger effect. I plan to try reading the WIP aloud after I complete the current round of revisions and see if it feels alive and ready for an audience. I’ve never done that as part of my self-editing process, but it may be exactly what I need. The actor in me may notice pacing and energy in ways the silent reader doesn’t. If I hear it and cringe as if it were that old first manuscript, I’ll know I have more work to do. If it plays, then it’s ready for the next beta readers, and I’m ready for whatever they tell me. The challenging thing about the Dunning-Kruger effect is that when it applies to us, we can’t tell. One of many reasons I can’t live without my betas.

6 thoughts on “The Dunning-Kruger Effect and Writing

  1. Richard, you read the first one I published. You gave me my first review, and I so I know you liked it. The first one I wrote, however, will never see the light of day.


  2. Hmmm. For what it’s worth… I thought I read your “first novel” but obviously we must be thinking of different books because that one certainly wasn’t cringe-worthy, so it must have been a later one… 😉


  3. Amber, I don’t think there is a writer out there that doesn’t second guess a book. I’m at that stage at the moment. I keep telling myself it’s not as interesting or twisting as much as the last seven in the series. I’m hoping when the time comes my critique partners tell me otherwise. Good post.


  4. As always, Amber, your threads are amazingly interesting. I think your writing ( in your novels) is impeccable in terms of diction, mechanics and syntax, but more importantly, character development is awesome.


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