Sunday, 30 May 2010

The Dunning Kruger Effect and Writing Books

These are my Jelly Belly jelly beans, and you ...Image via Wikipedia
What with one thing and another last week, traffic to Dubai's most inane blog went through the roof so this week I'm going to start off with the greatest traffic killer known to man - writing about writing. Whenever I post about writing, whole swathes of people just shrug their shoulders and wander off as if they'd been promised a lifetime's supply of peanut flavoured jelly beans and been offered a night out with Tony Blair instead.

Writer pal Bren MacDibble turned me on to the Dunning Kruger effect a couple of weeks ago and it delighted me so much, it's been buzzing around my little head ever since. It's really quite cool and it has provided me a convenient explanation for quite why work on Beirut, my third proper attempt at writing a publishable book, has been such an up and down experience. On good days, I'm filled with a sense of euphoria at how the book is coming together, truly a work with a mind and life of its own. On bad days, I can't bring myself to look at it, halting, half-hearted attempts at writing blocked by self-doubt and worry.

JG Ballard, a hero, used to write 1,000 words a day. I can remember thinking, when I started this odd obsession with writing, what a namby pamby wordrate that was. Nowadays I'll be lucky to match it. I know where I'm going, but find building the path there is taking much more time than it used to. I'm taking a lot more time to pick the stones, make sure the surface is prepared and then place them properly, as it were.

That's because of the Dunning Kruger effect, said wise old Dibs. And I suspect she's right. The Dunning Kruger Effect is a recognised psychological state whereby the unskilled are convinced of their brilliance, while the skilled are plunged into self doubt: the incompetent rate their ability more greatly than the competent.

I remember quite clearly (and with a shudder) setting out to write Space, my first attempt, and churning out 100k words of very funny but incredibly badly written book in a couple of months. There we go, I thought. pop that off to an agent or two and Robert's yer father's brother. To my shock, rejection slips started to arrive. Respected wordsmith Jason Pettus of the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography took a look at the MS, the consequent howl of pain and outrage still echoes in my memory. The book was rejected by over 100 agents, far from the literary world swooning at my feet as I had confidently expected. Eight years later, I recognise that it's actually uneditable and it's been consigned to the Bottom Drawer of Perpetual Darkness.

[Update. I have since edited it and put it up on Amazon simply because it made me laugh so much. Its first review reads, 'this book is not funny'!!!]

If I look back at draft one of book two, Olives, I'm inclined to the Pettus Reaction. Draft one was written in four weeks and I find it too painful to read it. It's like reading the poems you wrote when you were thirteen. The current draft of Olives is the result of a massive amount of learning, rewriting and editing and I am pleased with it. It's attracted some full read requests but no bites - but I know it's a quantum leap from the quality of writing of Space. Olives is also a serious book with a Middle Eastern setting - it has defined the areaof interest and genre I have settled into writing and is, in fact, the prequel to Beirut.

Beirut is about 75% complete and has taken seven months to get there. I'd like to think it's because of the Dunning Kruger effect. I suppose we'll see, won't we?
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8 comments:

Keefieboy said...

Very interesting! I'm suffering from it too - 20K words from completing the 1st draft of my 3rd book and I'm completel at a loss as to how to do it! Grrr.

Susan said...

Aaaah so that's what its called!

MacDibble said...

Of course, to name your monster is to give it power, so deepest apologies for that.

Patty said...

This is exactly what I'm finding. But... As I write less I actually have more success with the pieces I submit.

Alexandra said...

Oh lord, "it" has a name? Damn, the MacDibble. No wonder we all congregate together wallowing in our perceived inadequacies. ;-)

MacDibble said...

Is MacDibble a better name for it than Dunning-Kruger? And, the wallowing was already going on prior to my pointing things out in Wikipedia. And, it was a contagious meme passed to me by another writer... am I absolved yet?
Also... at 10k a month, I reckon Alexander is still prolific in the face of Dunning-Kruger.
Dunning-Kruger has made many writers choose to open a vein instead of write, or throw themselves into rivers named Ouse.

Phillipa said...

But what if it's something else stopping you from writing and yet you blame Dunning Kruger? Does that put you in the self deluded category because if you conciously decide the Dunning Kruger effect is slowing you down, then you must assume you have ability and to be concious of having ability could very well be Dunning Kruger, only the flip side. See what I mean?

macdibble said...

I see. This is a common side-effect of talking about Dunning-Kruger. The first rule of Dunning-Kruger is that there is no Dunning-Kruger.

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