One of the interesting things about telling people I’m a full-time writer is how people regard the craft. Some hold it at a lofty status, which to be honest can be a little uncomfortable, depending on how they express that. Another common reaction is people believing what I and other writing professionals do isn’t difficult or real work — even if they don’t realize that’s the message they’re communicating.
“I could write that” or “I could write that better” are responses you see to writers’ work pretty often. It might be true or it might not, but the attitude is somewhat prevalent. Why is that?
While there are likely a myriad of reasons, because we humans are complicated, the Dunning-Kruger Effect is one possible explanation.
If you’re like most people, you either know little about the Dunning-Kruger Effect or you’ve never heard of it. I’ll provide a brief explanation of it, but you certainly can read more about it on quite a few different websites. Just beware: researching psychology online is like researching medical conditions. The amount of poor information is abundant and it masquerades as the absolute truth.
Essentially, the Dunning-Kruger Effect is a type of cognitive bias, or a flaw in how people process information and make judgments. Someone suffering from it mistakenly overestimates their capability or knowledge in a certain skill set. A general lack of self-awareness is part of the reason why this phenomena exists, and there’s plenty of disagreement about why that’s a problem. Personally, I believe the cult of self-esteem is partly to blame, but that’s another post for another time.
The Dunning-Kruger Effect comes from work by two psychologists called Dunning and Kruger. A simplistic explanation of the work which led to this discovery is they found by asking that people who were really bad at a skill would often grossly overestimate their capabilities. At the same time, people who were quite skilled at the same thing underrated their performance.
When it comes to writing, sometimes it feels like everyone is a critic. That’s not really true, because there are plenty of readers who don’t criticize constantly, but those who like to shoot their mouths off about how they could write something better are often loud and persistent. Meanwhile, a good chunk of writers who have extensive writing experience and have reached a high level of aptitude realize just how difficult it is to write for a living. As a result, they’re not constantly trying to humiliate our peers.
One thing so many people fail to take into account is how difficult writing well for hours and hours each day can be. The effort is intellectually taxing. Sure, you might be able to write one article or a page in a book in a day and be absolutely brilliant, but that might not be enough to pay the bills. So you have to write more, making it far more difficult to be so brilliant as you maintain a more grueling pace. Then there’s the issue of catching all your mistakes while keeping up with deadlines.
I see errors in major publications all the time, including spelling or glaring grammatical errors in books from big publishers. Does that mean the writer or editors are idiots? No, it doesn’t. Catching all the mistakes in a 600-page manuscript is downright impossible, especially for a first edition.
As I become more accomplished as a writer, the more forgiving I am of other writers’ errors. We’re all learning, and mastering any language is a difficult task. It doesn’t build me up in the least to make a big deal about others’ mistakes.
The thing about the Dunning-Kruger Effect is that it keeps incompetent people from growing and learning. After all, if you think with little effort and sacrifice you’re a better writer than authors who have been through the wringer to get where they are, you won’t put in the necessary work to become a better writer because you believe such effort is unwarranted. Instead, you might just sit back and complain about how the whole publishing industry is “fixed” and grumble that how you’re an unappreciated wordsmith genius who should be at the top. That very attitude holds you back.
The fact everyone writes and can read seems to make the Dunning-Kruger Effect so pronounced in the writing profession. I’ve been told it’s the same way with photographers, since everyone takes photos. Because people perform the skill regularly, they’re more likely to believe they’re excellent at it, especially if their competency is low.
This Dunning-Kruger Effect is a double-edged sword. Remember that Dunning and Kruger found those with high proficiency judged themselves to be less competent than they actually were? That’s a very real phenomena which often leads to what’s called “impostor syndrome.”
You’d be surprised how many highly-accomplished professionals feel like some sort of a fraud. They’re extremely good at what they do, but deep down inside they feel undeserving to be where they’re at. This is quite common with writers.
When your knowledge expands, so does your awareness of what you don’t know or aren’t good at. An uncle of mine use to draw small circles to represent knowledge before a person becomes educated. The more that person learns, the circles grow and the edges touch more negative space, or the areas where you sense you have little or no knowledge. In essence, learning makes you more aware of your deficiencies, or at least it should.
How writers express that they’re feeling impostor syndrome can vary from one to the next. Some put on an egotistical front, a mask if you will, and act overly confident. Dealing with that defensive mechanism can be frustrating, but it’s an elaborate ruse to fool others. It might sound like a bad idea, but I can guarantee if you were to really get to know some of your favorite writers at least some would behave that way in social situations since they lack confidence.
Other writers suffering from impostor syndrome become withdrawn. It’s like they’re afraid if they interact with too many people they’ll be discovered for the fraud they supposedly are. That’s an isolating, depressing existence.
Some writers just try to ignore the uncomfortable feelings and push forward. That strategy might work for a while, but eventually everyone must face their emotions.
Things get even messier when as a writer struggling with impostor syndrome you run into a non-writer or amateur writer deep in the throes of the Dunning-Kruger Effect. To be subjected to harsh, perhaps unwarranted criticism when questioning your own legitimacy as a writer can be absolutely crushing.
This is one of stumbling blocks which often knock people out of the writing profession. It’s tough to face rabid criticism when you already feel like a failure.
If you’re able to find a way through this difficulty the result is you become tougher. However, I’ll be the first to admit a career as a writer isn’t for everyone. Trust me, plenty of people I meet think I live a life of luxury because they’ve idealized this profession. They’d be horrified if they knew what I deal with day after day, week after week. Writing for a living is grueling work.
There’s no magical solution to dealing with the Dunning-Kruger Effect and impostor syndrome. I’ve found self-reflection and consistently measuring my own progress as honestly as possible keeps me in check, but that might not work for others.
While researching for this post I was surprised to see the Dunning-Kruger Effect being weaponized politically and socially to smear those who don’t think “correctly.” I’m not a fan of elitism, so I certainly hope this post isn’t taken as advocating those kinds of behaviors. At the same time, a healthy respect for how difficult it is to finely craft your abilities as a writer is great. But there will always be those critics who think they can do better. To them all I have to say is: go do it and stop talking about it. Criticizing is one thing, but doing is something entirely different.
Image by Steven Symes. All rights reserved for this blog post text and the accompanying photograph.