Dunning Kruger, overconfidence, and imposter syndrome

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Have you ever met a writer who thinks their work is all that and a bag of potato chips, but it’s actually terrible? Not just “this doesn’t appeal to my personal tastes,” but loaded with mistakes and truly awful? In my experience, these writers also love to give questionable advice, or quote other authors’ advice but call it their personal opinion.

Well, try to cut them a break. They might still be in the early stages of the Dunning-Kruger Effect. (If you want to be edgy, you could say they’re on top of Mt. Stupid, but I try not to be like that.) Here’s a visual.

Dunning Kruger graph
Credit: Wikipedia

The Dunning-Kruger Effect

The Dunning-Kruger Effect is a form of cognitive bias where inexperienced people overestimate their ability to perform a task. The original inspiration of this study was a man named McArthur Wheeler, who smeared lemon juice on his face before robbing two banks because he thought it would make him invisible to security cameras.

Spoiler alert: It didn’t work.

Okay, now that we’ve had our fun at Mr. Wheeler’s expense, it’s time to come clean. We’ve all visited the top of Mt. Stupid at one point or another. It’s a natural part of learning new things, and we all need to be understanding when we encounter an overconfident newcomer. This post isn’t even directed much at those folks because many of them are ignorant to such a degree that they’re not aware of their own ignorance. I’m not trying to make a dig at them by saying that; it’s just how it is. Anyway.

Everyone falls off that peak at a different point in their writing journey. It happens to some people when they hit a tough spot in their draft. Others make it through their draft and fall when they get a critique or a rejection. At any rate, if somebody sticks with a craft long enough, eventually they realize they’re really not that good, and that’s when they reach the Valley of Despair.

The name is a little off-putting, but it’s not that bad. It just means that person has opened their mindset and is ready to learn. The fastest way out of the Valley of Despair is through training and practice. For a writer, that could mean a lot of things.

Finding your way out of the valley

This journey is going to be different for everyone, but of course I have a few tips. First and foremost, you need enough self-awareness to realize that you have room to improve. Second, you need the drive and desire to push yourself even when you feel like you’ll never be any good. Here are a few things you can do to help boost your writing out of the Valley of Despair.

Read

I don’t mean just light reading, either. You need to learn how to analyze what you’re reading and figure out what aspects of a book work and which ones maybe aren’t so strong. Joining a book club might help. You can also look at literary criticism or book reviews. The more you read, the more you’ll learn.

In addition to reading material that’s in whatever genre you’re writing, look at writing guides. Read interviews with authors or check out their blogs. Read the news; I’ve gotten some great ideas from news articles. As I mentioned earlier this month, a lot of The Handmaid’s Tale was based on things that Margaret Atwood saw on the news. Ideas are everywhere if you know how to look for them, and reading will help you with that, too.

Critique

When I say critique here, I’m talking about giving and receiving. When you start pointing out things that don’t work in other people’s writing, you should also start identifying those same things in your own work. I have several posts about critique on this blog, so feel free to check those out here if you need some help getting started.

Take courses

There are writers out there who are legitimately afraid of taking courses because they think it will kill their creativity. A good teacher will help you unlock your creativity; they’ll show you how to channel what skill you have and build on it. Try an online course or look for workshops in your community and just see how it feels.

Others worry about the cost, which is fair. But there are resources out there that don’t cost much, if anything. You just have to look for them. Writers of the Future has a good workshop that’s free. You should also check out your local library and community college; a lot of them have low to no cost writing groups and community education programs.

Keep writing

You’re not going to get any better if you quit. Write as much as you can. If you ever feel stuck, consider branching out. Try different genres, or keep a journal or blog. Experiment with tropes or prompts you see online.

Get outside your comfort zone

Think about someone who basically writes the same story over and over again. Romance stories with the same tropes. Cozy mysteries that somehow always involve helpful cats. Cancer porn (not actual porn; link is SFW). Would you, as a reader, want to keep reading the same basic story from the same author? Or would you eventually move on to something new?

I don’t know that it’s a good idea to repeat the same or even similar themes in everything you write, and I’m saying that as a writer who has a shtick. Eventually readers are going to get bored and want something different. You’ve got to get outside your box if you want to grow, and you’ve got to grow if you ever want to leave the Valley of Despair and someday reach sustainability.

Imposter syndrome

Imagine you’re working on a project. It’s coming along okay, maybe not great but well enough, and then you suddenly start feeling like it’s garbage. More than that, you’re a total fraud. Once your story is published, if it ever gets published, everyone else is going to know you’re a fraud, too.

That’s imposter syndrome–that feeling that you’re not good enough, or that your success was only due to luck and not your own intelligence or skill. It doesn’t happen to everyone, but it’s kind of the flip side of Dunning-Kruger. You start out overconfident and, once you’ve realized your limitations, you find yourself doubting the very real skills you’ve worked so hard to build.

It happens to almost all of us. Even famous authors like Neil Gaiman have struggled with imposter syndrome at times. I think it helps to remember that I’m not in competition with every other writer out there. I’m only competing with myself. As long as my latest work is better than my last work, I’m doing fine.

Do we ever reach the Plateau of Sustainability?

I think that depends on your goals, to be honest. If you think sustainability means becoming a NYT Bestselling author and get movie and TV deals, then that answer is no. Most writers never reach that point. If sustainability means confidence and steady growth in your craft, no matter what outside accolades you receive, then the sky’s the limit.

Where do you think you are on the Dunning-Kruger scale? Please leave a comment below if you feel like sharing. I’m probably somewhere on the Slope of Enlightenment, but I have yet to reach anything that feels like sustainability. I might never get there. As long as I’m alive, I think there will still be room for growth.

How’s NaNoWriMo treating you? The blogathon is going pretty well, I think, although it’s taking more of my time than I thought it would. Come back tomorrow for a bad writing rules post about dialogue tags. It’s been in my archive for a while, and I just never posted it because the timing never felt quite right. I had a lot of fun writing it and I think you’ll enjoy it.

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2 Comments

  1. I’d say I’m on the slope of enlightenment, but probably not very high up lol. Learning to accept honest critiques for the help they were actually meant to be rather than as a personal attack really helped me get off any Stupid and climb out of the Valley of Despair, so for any other authors out there, learn that skill as you work on your writing skills!!

    1. Critique is so important. I see a lot of novices dismiss it as “only one person’s opinion,” but learning how to recognize when a critique can make your story stronger is such a vital skill for a writer.

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