Nathan Bransford, Author


Monday, March 22, 2010

Do You Lack Confidence in Your Writing? It Might Not Be a Bad Thing!

While clicking around the Internet over the weekend I found myself on the Cognitive Bias page on Wikipedia, which is incredibly interesting. Um. Unless of course I'm just fooling myself.

Anyway, eventually I found my way to a page about the Dunning-Kruger effect. Have you heard of this?

The basic theory is that when people are incompetent at something they tend to lack the ability to realize it and they overrate their abilities relative to others. Meanwhile, people who actually are good at something tend to underrate their abilities and may as a result suffer from lack of confidence.

It got me thinking of all those insanely talented writers out there in fits of despair thinking they're not any good. Could it be that they're just suffering from a little Dunning-Kruger effect?

Take it away Wikipedia!
The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which "people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it". The unskilled therefore suffer from illusory superiority, rating their own ability as above average, much higher than in actuality; by contrast the highly skilled underrate their abilities, suffering from illusory inferiority. This leads to a perverse result where less competent people will rate their own ability higher than more competent people. It also explains why actual competence may weaken self-confidence because competent individuals falsely assume that others have an equivalent understanding. "Thus, the miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others."






173 comments:

Lindsey Himmler said...

So, uh...I wonder how you find out which one you are???

InMyDreamsItWasSimpler said...

Interesting...

That explains why rubbish writers have the biggest egos.

Shiloh Walker said...

Okay, so I tend to think everything I write sucks. But I'm fine with that thinking...it always makes me keep trying to improve, anyway. And I'd rather think I suck then be utterly convinced I rule the writing universe... O_O

T.J. said...

Is this why I think I suck so much at writing and yet never want to give up on it? Oh, phew, thought something was really wrong with me.

agirlandaboy said...

And yet, incompetent writers, no matter how great they think they are, will still be incompetent and turning out crap work. BUT! They might have more luck getting published because their "illusory superiority" will keep them submitting manuscripts long after the less confident but more talented writer will have given up. So...does that mean more bad writing reaches the market while the brilliant writer burn up their best work in despair? Maybe so.

Sandy Williams said...

Interesting. I definitely lack confidence in my writing (yay?) so I'm constantly having to tell myself things like, "If I really sucked, I wouldn't have an agent," or "If I really sucked, my beta readers would tell me (wouldn't they?!)". Nice to know I might have a complex.

:-)

Jeff said...

Explains why vanity publishers are profitable. "The publishing companies just don't understand my genius!"

Anonymous said...

Oh dear, so now I have even more reason to doubt myself.

Not only do I question my ability, but now I have to wonder if I suffer this affliction.

Sigh

Abby Stevens said...

Finally, a name for what I like to call "American Idol syndrome."

michelle said...

This describes my husband perfectly- he is a freakin' genius at his job but he constantly underrates himself. It drives me nuts! Even after i forward this to him he won't believe in his abilities- oh well!

Bane of Anubis said...

I do know I've gotten less confident the more I've written -- but that's probably b/c I'm more aware of the industry than anything else (though I'd like to think it's the DuKE :)

JohnO said...

Ah, what a fascinating subject! Especially because there's more than a grain of truth to the poet Randall Jarrell's peppery quote that "The novel is a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it."

There's a pretty good blog called The Rejecter (writer, reads slush to pay the bills) where he made an interesting comment last week: after writing something and editing for a year, "it's still not in the best shape it could be, but it may be in the best shape I'm capable of making it."

The longer I have written, the more I try to listen to a quiet voice that tells me if a scene isn't pulling its weight, or is slowing down the story, or could be replaced with a quick line or two of back-story.

In writing, there should be no such thing as "good enough." There ought to be only, as good as I could make it -- and then I listened to my smart beta readers.

Perry Robles said...

Sometimes I think I rock.

Sometimes I think I suck.

Sometimes I doubt. Sometimes I don't.

What does that mean?

150 said...

Yes, I've heard of that study, and it is terrifying.

Nathan Bransford said...

agirlandaboy-

Um. Well, as someone with a book coming out next year I'd like to think it's a matter of setting aside the pangs of self-doubt.

Nicole said...

I learned this in my sociology class but I never thought to apply it to writing. Hmm...

April Wendy Hollands said...

I think I'm a terrible, terrible writer. Yes, a terrible writer. So bad, in fact, that I haven't even tried to find an agent yet. :O)

Flemmily said...

I find this idea encouraging!

Maybe all is not lost! I had a major attack of the "am-I-crazies" this weekend, so this post is well timed.

I'll go try to pull the shreds of my writing confidence back together again...

Vegas Linda Lou said...

Yikes. I'll put my book up against anyone's, but my performing skills... nope. Don't have that level of confidence. Despite this post, I doubt I'm really a better performer than writer.

Anonymous said...

Wow.

That makes so much sense with some other people I know. For example, one person I know, who had at a point that she had no professional experience to speak of, declared herself–at that point–to be the best in her field.

And many people I know who are so insecure have such depths.
(I think they have historically been referred to as "late bloomers.")

Erin Edwards said...

I visit blogs for motivation to keep pressing on with my writing - this one's another good one!

Margaret Yang said...

I recently tried my hand at a new genre of writing I'd never tried before. I think it turned out rather well.

Uh-oh.

Susan Quinn said...

Good to know we're all disturbed in one way or another.

"...competent individuals falsely assume that others have an equivalent understanding."

This explains why my brilliant husband simply cannot BELIEVE that others cannot accomplish a fraction of what he does. I think competent people of reasonable ego sizes tend to normalize what they accomplish: "Well, if I can do it, it can't be that hard." When it fact it is hard, and there is a definitive accomplishment. Throw in there the inherently emotional business that writing is, and you have a recipe for otherwise competent, confident people to suffer crippling bouts of self-doubt.

This is also one of the reasons I believe in, and actively pursue, a positively reinforcing community of writers. It's the only thing to combat the "I am crazies" and keep going, trudging ahead.

Ted Cross said...

I keep putting off seeking an agent, convincing myself that I just need to keep editing and editing...

Suzannah said...

Brilliant. I've always noticed it's the pompous writers with the biggest egos and overblown vocabularies who turn out to be not as great at you'd think. Now I know why!

melissa mcinerney said...

I started writing with a certain arrogance and ignorance. It wasn't until I learned how to write that I started doubting my ability. Same with swimming and I've been competing for years and years and years.

Daisy said...

Couldn't there be some self-selection here? After all, if you're bad at something and you know you're bad at it, you aren't likely to keep pursuing it. (See: me, drawing) It's only the bad people who think they are good who are trying at all. Whereas, if you do have some ability, you're likely to get enough positive feedback along the way to allow you to survive with less innate confidence.

mkcbunny said...

This was well-timed. I can now feel a little better about feeling that my my novel has too many problems to fix. Thanks.

John M. Baron said...

In addition, I think the highly skilled have a better understanding of how much more there is to learn in their field. This, of course, applies to anyone in any field. The incompetents have no grasp of this, and it's one of the factors that often contributes to their continuing stagnation.

Scott said...

I wrote about ten screenplays before I accidentally wrote my first book. I'd say I was inoculated against this!

But I have felt the converse. It harms my writing in a different way: I think readers are well onto me, see my direction as hackneyed, and pointlessly complicate things. Urgh.

Erika Robuck said...

In my spiritual reading, I often find that saints/extremely religious themselves the least worthy. This also applies. Very interesting...

Susan Quinn said...

Daisy - I think that might well apply to writing, but less to other areas. Only if you're really driven, do you last any time in this field, but over-confident incompetents (as well as under-confident competents) persist all kinds of businesses.

Wow. Say that five times fast.

Gretchen said...

But my question is, which is the cause and which is the effect? Perhaps bad writers are bad because they think they're awesome so they aren't working hard to get better. ("Why bother trying to improve, right? I'm already a genius!") Meanwhile, the less confident writers are working their butts off to get better ("I totally suck, so I am going to have to put a lot more work into this!") and thus, they do get better, and become excellent writers.

Can you tell that I like to put more faith in hard work that in inherent talent?

Jil said...

Perhaps those with illusiory superiority syndrome are better sales people, hence the odd "art" sold for very large sums. People are now selling cross bred backyard dogs for higher prices than purebreds from careful breeders. My friends' daughter just paid $1, 500 for a labradoodle with a cocker father??! All salesmanship.

I'm a terrible salesman. Maybe I should be glad!

Pete said...

Ergo Dan Brown keeps foisting his books on us while J.D Salinger spent fifty years locked in his house?

I hit a stage very early in a new story, usually midway through the second chapter, where I decide it is going to be brilliant. Then I take a rest pick up Irene Nemirovsky or Tolstoy or Hem and suddenly realise that I can't write. It's like a blinding light illuminating all the flaws and all the problems with my writing and my style. I spend the rest of the process with the sole aim of making it not suck too badly.

This raises many questions about why we write. Does the fact that someone can recognise good writing mean that with years of work they may one day be able to do it? Or is it something you're born with or not? And how do you know whether you're your own worst critic or whether you're just honest?

I guess the thing is if you enjoy it you will continue doing it whether or not anyone ever reads it.

Anonymous said...

It also seems that many really insightful people in many fields delay "going for it" because of this.

And others, thank goodness, keep studying, learning, and so on long after they have been awarded a degree, license, or professional status.

Perhaps it is their insecurity that keeps them striving forward, but we so want our doctors, pilots, bridge builders to keep up with new knowledge.

Look what has happened to too many inexperienced pilots, thinking that with just a pilot's license, that they could fly at night over the ocean, for example.

word verification: suredli

(suredly - as in he was suredly of hisself)

Anonymous said...

My writing sucks, but I still submit it.

I know writers who write awesome prose, but they don't submit. They're afraid of rejection. Or maybe it's self-confidence.

John M. Baron said...

I'm with Gretchen -- hard work is the way, otherwise you have to be born into your job, right? As for Daisy's comment, it reminds me of talking to my son circa 8 yrs old ("I'm not good at X. I don't want to do X. For X, substitute baseball, hiking, math, etc). If you only pursue the things you know you're good at, an awful lot of the world is closed-off to you right from the get-go. You need to find out if, with some hard work, you can become good at something.

Anonymous said...

(And there are writers whose books all seem like the same one written over and over, ala formula, while others keep surprising and delighting or confounding us as they grow.)

sex scenes at starbucks said...

Firstly, anyone who's hung round writers conferences know this without trying. :)

I feel more for the writers who overestimate their abilities, actually, because they are unable to learn. I think it's possible that the better writers who think they suck continue to improve because they think they suck.

Kimber An said...

I've observed that.

I think they only cure for either extreme is lots of experience.

Stephanie said...

Loved it! Thanks for sharing. ;)

Ted Cross said...

This is what is meant by 'The more you learn the less you know'.

It took getting my master title in chess to fully realize just how bad I am at chess.

NipponBeck said...

Well, that makes me feel a little better! Every time I'm told that I shouldn't be seeking an agent if I'm not 100% confident in my story, I think, "... well, what if I worked really hard and want to give it a shot, but would be utterly shocked if an agent wanted to represent me?"

Sarah Enni said...

I think there might be a writer behind this theory. I like it!

Side note -- I think this theory might also relate to this year's March Madness. The Big East really thought it was the cat's meow, and we all know how that turned out (I'm looking at you, Seth Davis)!

Anonymous said...

This theory also gives pause to consider how to care and tend and nurture the insecure in our society.

Michael A. Emeritz said...

What if deep down you feel worthless, but you've been encouraged to have confidence in your ability? Or, what if over the years you've learned to stop beating yourself up and give confidence a try?

This sort of puts a lot more pressure on those who've lacked self-esteem in the past, but who've made an effort to stop self-hating. Moreover, this sort of information makes every wannabe want to flip the "I don't want to admit that I might suck" switch, and lie about having a lack of confidence just to boost their egos even more.

Some people that exhibit confidence have a right to be proud. Some people don't. In my personal experience I've seen more people with inflated egos claim that they are terrible than those who truly know what they are doing.

For me... How can I even tell? Whether something is good or bad is largely subjective anyway. Only one thing is certain; I absolutely love to write, and I want to write well, so I try the best I can. Now I'm supposed to feel bad if I feel good about something I've written?

This is crazy talk.

Of course, Mr. Bransford, you do know that everyone who replies to this is going to claim they suck now, in hopes that you will perceive them all as brilliant.

Que can of worms...

TERI REES WANG said...

Sounds like a back handed complement either way.

Anonymous said...

I used to think if I could do something, anybody could do it. Then, life clobbered me to a degree I can't even think about right now and out of sheer self-preservation I changed my view of myself. I became my own dear friend and witnessed how amazing I can be sometimes.
Humility needs the friend of Compassion - give it to yourself today.

Leila said...

I was going to post quite a detailed comment here (because this crosses over into my profession) but common sense won the day and I deleted it before I could bore you all to tears.

Suffice to say that this sort of effect, combined with some self analysis - say through a cognitive psychological tool such as Johari Window, (simple yet really effective to use) plus an emotional intelligence tool ideally, can go a long way to helping us realize our true potential, in all regards, writing included.

I'd like to say more, but I'm trying to restrain myself. Ok, one more thing, sorry. If you look at the Johari Window, or for those who know it, the 3rd and 4th quadrants (you don't know what you know and you don't know what you don't know) are the most amazing in terms of helping us unlock/unleash/find out so much about ourselves and therefore help to target/identify/enhance our desired capability areas.

Ok, I'm stopping now. Really.

Anonymous said...

I doubt Cormac McCarthy thinks he sucks at writing. But I bet if you asked him, he'd say he still hasn't written his best work.

I suck at almost everything, but I've always liked to write. It's the only thing I do half-well. And it's true that the merest criticism of my writing (mostly coming from my internal voice) can put me in a tailspin for a week. I suck, I suck, I suck...

But I'm always drawn back in. Because even though I know I'm no Cormac McCarthy, I do get satisfaction from seeing my writing improve. Usually that's enough to give me the confidence to keep going.

reader said...

This is brilliant. My crippling self-doubt actually means I'm probably a really good writer!

Oh, wait, then why can't I get published? :)

I do think this is true, though. It explains why stupid people are often happier -- they're too stupid to know they shouldn't be.

Susan Quinn said...

Leila - I know what you mean about those psych tools that put people into quadrants. I think they are fascinating as well (Mom's a psychologist, so I have some respect for the work behind it too). But I still think those things only help if they bring you positive insight into who you are. If you happen to land waaaay off in one wacky corner of the box, when everyone else is nestled, nice and normal, in the middle, well what does that mean? Either you're genius or completely mental. Or both. (er, not that this every happened to me. No! It was my friend. I swear! :)

I'm generally very on board with the idea of knowing yourself, your limits, and your abilities. Work to your strengths and shore up those weaknesses. All cliche, and yet very difficult to follow.

Kristen Torres-Toro said...

Ooh--maybe this means I'm brilliant? :0)

Adam Pepper said...

I KNOW I am awesome at picking winners in NCAA hoops. That inner confidence is clearly reflected on my sheet.

Leila said...

Susan

Yep, great points and I think the thing with using any sort of tool is to recognise that it is only that - a tool.

It's one tool in our toolkit towards helping us find out more about ourselves. My personal belief is that unearthing all the bits - the good, the bad and the ugly - ultimately work for good in the end because we work out more about ourselves as a whole person, (in Johari Window you have to consider all quadrants, I'm just suggesting the 3rd and 4th have a bigger impact) which is good either for healing, for growing, for learning, for anything.

In terms of writing, I think this contributes to a writer having a stronger internal frame of reference. They can more easily draw from their own internal experience on sad things, happy things, challenging things, responses, reactions, decisions, you name it, it's possible.

I stress again though, that I'm only saying these are tools, not answers. What Nathan found is a theory that raises good questions for us to consider. It's then what we do with the questions they pose for us as individuals that matters.

I have no idea if this makes sense to anyone other than me. It's late here and I have run out of chocolate.

Ed Miracle said...

Of course I lack confidence. I'm standing here in mid-air, trying not to look down, and some twit from Fox News wants to know if I think I'll make it to the other side!

K.L. Brady said...

I could definitely use more confidence. I still nearly faint at the sign of a new review on my book, dreading what it might say. So, it's good to know I may not be as bad as I think I am. :)

(As an aside, you've probably already seen this but I thought you might find the ebook part of particular interest. Someone just posted this on another forum.)

http://www.scribd.com/doc/28748300/AAP-Reports-Publishing-Sales-for-Month-of-January

Brittany said...

Hmmm, I don't think I'm good at writing. Usually, my writing sucks. But I don't think that I'm actually underrating my abilities. Which one am I?

Nicole L Rivera said...

Interesting...I hope it's true :)

Rebecca said...

Well this helps :) sorta, I definitely lack confidence when it comes to my writing x( sometimes I'm to worried to read my own work, afraid that it'd be all in vain and have to throw it out (I did that once, my friends wouldn't stop calling me an idiot for about a month)

Rebecca said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
J.J. Bennett said...

Please let it be so... :)

I do think if you push yourself to better your work you'll always come out ahead of the game. I sometimes spend a half hour on something and walk away from it happy. Other times I second guess myself until I just "know" it works. -May not be perfect... but getting there!

Ink said...

Luckily this doesn't apply universally. :) Kinda hoping I'm in the confident-with-good-reason group rather than the grossly delusioned one. Maybe I'll steal some Avatar 3D glasses and everything will burst into clarity.

Terry Stonecrop said...

I think most writers think their writing isn't good enough.

Munk said...

Oh the humanity! Nathan, Nathan... What have you done, did you really have to pop open that can of hash? Those once quiet voices in my head have begun shrieking at one another again.
Am I Northern Iowa or am I Kansas? Wait, don't answer that, you haven't seen my best stuff yet...

Livia said...

Cool, I hadn't heard of that study but it kinda makes sense when you think about it. So the question is, what if I have a medium level of confidence in my writing?

Tracy Hahn-Burkett said...

What does Dunning-Kruger have to say about those of us who bounce from "I think, if I really, really work hard enough, that I might just be able to write something worth reading," to "Oh my God, I can't believe how bad I suck" and back again in less time than it takes to write this comment? (And then we do it again an hour later. And again.)

JTShea said...

I find your lack of faith disturbing, Young Bransford. You doubt I can rule the universe? Do you have addresses for Dunning and Kruger so my minions can liquidate them?

Nathan Bransford said...

jtshea-

I can only imagine the openings to Dunning's and Kruger's research papers: "This really isn't a very good paper and we're so sorry to have bothered you with it but we kind of have this idea that people probably aren't interested at all but oh well here it is..."

Amanda said...

Awesome! Then my writing must be stellar.

d minus said...

i'm confident in my writing about 25% of the time. I used to be at 50%... but after I finished my novel, a quarter of my time became occupied with the question of:

"what the hell am I thinking!?"

The Red Angel said...

Hm, well this definitely makes me feel a little better. =] I'm VERY self-conscious about showing my writing to other people, especially my family.

Perhaps there's more to my writing than nonsensical strings of letters. xD Thank you for the confidence boost!

Andrea Franco-Cook said...

This is so true Nathan. There are times during the writing process which I think, "Wow! this is great." Then, when I read my work the following day, I realize it is crap.

In contrast, whenever I think my work stinks, betas report the opposite. Needless to say, I remain in a constant state of confusion.

d minus said...

red-
i have the same problem. I don't let family read anything I've written.

MJR said...

I think you have to be both humble and delusional to succeed as a writer. I've run into too many writers, however, who are delusional only.

Anonymous said...

That said, lack of confidence can be seriously self-defeating. After I was fired from my first teaching job, one of my supervisors said I reported too many problems, and had I given off more of a veneer of confidence, I might have kept the position. I took the advice to heart, gave my supervisors only good news (handling problems on my own the best I could) and never got fired from a teaching job again. Was I more confident as a teacher? Maybe a little, as a result of gaining experience and seeing my students advance, but not to the level I needed to show for my supervisors to take me seriously.

That leads us to the next condition: Impostor Syndrome.

Breeze said...

I wonder where that leaves those of us who simply don't care? I write because I love it. Sometimes other people love my writing as well, sometimes they don't. I have a nice career doing what I love. I am writing a new book in a genre I've never tried before and I'll have to find a new publisher...if it deserves to be published it will be and if it doesn't it won't but I will love the story so I'm doing it.

But I truly love crafting images and living with characters and pulling bits of inspiration out of the air as I sit and write. I love learning about the craft and I love reading the masters of the craft.

I don't give the value of my work a lot of thought, when I'm in the middle of it all as to whether it's good or not and I rarely think about it after...I just love the journey through the story..am I odd?

Probably,

Breeze

Marilyn Peake said...

This is an interesting study, but the results are more complicated than might appear at first blush. Here’s a link to the actual study:
"Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments" by Justin Kruger and David Dunning, Cornell University.

The results show that, although competent research subjects didn’t originally assume they had performed much better than their peers, they were quickly able to more accurately assess their high level of ability after seeing the level at which their peers actually performed. The researchers hypothesized that people who function at a high level of excellence in a particular area may assume that most people perform equally well in that area until they see evidence to the contrary, and that highly competent individuals have a high enough level of metacognitive abilities to accurately evaluate where they stand in comparison to others when given enough information. I don’t believe the reasearch showed that competent individuals had low confidence in their abilities. On the contrary, they seemed to know that they had performed well; but underestimated exactly how well they did because they assumed their peers would have performed well, too. On the other hand, people who are incompetent in certain areas may also not have enough metacognitive abilities to accurately understand how their performance compares to others. Very interestingly, however, those trained to become more competent were then able to more accurately evaluate their performance in comparison to the performance of their peers. Also important to consider is that all the research subjects were Cornell University undergraduate students from a variety of psychology courses who earned extra credit for their participation in the research study; and, as with most psychological studies performed on university campuses, there’s some built-in bias, since samples of university students aren’t truly a random sample of the larger population.

Johan said...

So uh, does that mean I'm a bad writer in a good way or a good writer in a bad way??

T. Anne said...

I guess my natural self deprecation bodes well for me then.

Lydia Kang said...

So...has Pfizer invented the pill to cure the disease? So we can see exactly what kind of writers we are? I wish. But then, it would be a hard pill to swallow, no?

Susan Quinn said...

Wait, what? They were all psych majors? Well that explains everything...
:)

Jill Elizabeth said...

awesome. now if I can just get past the crippling self-doubt...

Pamala Knight said...

Sounds suspiciously like the Peter Principle. Thanks for sharing.

Angelica Weatherby said...

I write to prove how horrible a writer I am (not even 1 years of experience) but it always backfires. Any comments I do receive about my writing is mainly unique, interesting, or love it. Short Novel(Long Novella): 'It's ready to be published' I hope this theory isn't true to me but seems to be true. :-) Great post!

D. G. Hudson said...

Support systems are what generally give writers more confidence -- these could be critique groups, friends, or other writers. If your work has been reviewed or posted online or published in other formats, then you're more likely to have a greater sense of confidence.

Confidence can be weakened by all the hoops (not basketball ones) that writers must jump through to get in the gate. Rejection tends to undermine the confidence as well. There are many factors that affect confidence, but only a few that we can control. I think you need a good dose of confidence in your own abilities.

Other Lisa said...

I'm just going to laugh and nod.

Liesl said...

Isn't this displayed so nicely through American Idol?

Phyllis said...

I'm with Marilyn Peake. I believe, Nathan, that you slightly over-interpreted the results.

In general, the self-confidence of the competent participants was higher than the confidence of the incompetent ones, though they did still underestimate their performance relative to their peers. That means they said "I'm in the top 20" when indeed they were in the top 10. It does not mean competent participants lacked confidence.

Regarding writers, the Dunning-Kruger effect may explain why agents receive queries, written with an utter confidence, that contrasts sharply with the actual quality of the work. But competent writers would also display confidence -- it has just a better foundation in reality.

Nathan Bransford said...

marilyn and phyllis-

Thanks for the additional background info! I'm by no means an expert on these studies.

Michael said...

Good grief, that's interesting!

I've spent my life in the creative efforts (music, writing, fine arts) and surrounded myself with people doing the same thing. It's amazing to me how many of these talented people blush at compliments and have so very little confidence in their talents. It may be because it comes so easy for them that they don't feel their creations are anything out of the ordinary.

I've also seen the opposite side of the coin. That's the sad part. And from the number of rejections I receive, perhaps I'm in the latter group. (Hey, that guy can't write, but he doesn't know it.)

Loved this informative post!

Mira said...

This is a really, really interesting discussion. I liked so many points - Daisy, Marilyn, Ink.

So, I'll add this.

First, I think the theory is alittle flawed, but raises some fascinating questions.

In terms of flawed, well, for example: I suck at art. I really, really suck art. Trust me, I'm not deluding myself. Boy, do I suck. And I do not have a co-corresponding belief that I'm fantastic at art.

But in terms of writing, I've gotten good feedback, but I never believe it. But I secretly do. But every time I sit down to write something, I doubt myself so much, I often freeze. But in my mind, I imagine writing epics that sing to the angels. And on some level, I think I might be able to do that.

But I secretly know I can't. But I secretly think maybe I can?????

I think there are other factors not included in the theory. Personality types may deal with things differently. In addition, the importance of dreams may play a part. Fear of failure. Fear of success. Fear of losing a dream. Fear of not being good enough. Fear of acheiving your dream, and then what? And, of course, there's always those childhood voices and experiences that can either stop you in your tracks until you work it through, or help you to race forward because you believe in yourself or make you misjudge your own abilities.

Not only that, but it's important to separate confidence from assessment of one's own abilities. Those can be two different things.

So, I think it's very complicated, but very important to discuss for many reason, but especially this one:

Writing talent and confidence are not necessarily correlated.

I have more to say (can you believe it :) But later.

Wow, awesome, thanks, Nathan. Great discussion!

Anonymous said...

I wonder what this study means for certain haughty editors who believe they know best what the readers of the world want, yet only seem to profit off a small percentage of the novels which are published.

Or what about publishing houses that pretend to select only the “highest quality” manuscripts, but then get terrible reviews and low sales for the churning out the same ole crap year after year?

Do they ever look at their results (and lack of them) and attempt a different course of action or do they just blame writers for not producing enough quality work? Why should they self-evaluate and change when they can just blame writers for not developing their platforms? It’s easier to just decry the rise in self-published novels which have slipped through the cracks, but after gathering a following have suddenly become “quality enough” for representation by those in the ivory towers.

I know writers (at least those of us here on these blogs studying the industry and honing our craft) often look at themselves and attempt to improve. Are mirrors ever used in NYC?

Charmaine Clancy said...

I'm also wondering now if people who feel less confident work harder at improving their skills constantly, which would also have the affect of producing more competent writing? Hmmmm.

GalaktioNova said...

As a performing artist, I know literally hundreds of hugely talented people falling under this rule.

I'm off to send this to a friend of mine, an enormously talented writer who thinks he's total rubbish! I couldn't convince him, now I have science on my side! Thank you so much!!

(Oh, I know I'm rubbish too, but I've learned to mock self-confidence so they'll never know :-)))

wendy said...

Um, so where does positive thinking fit into all this? *g*

Btw, interesting theory. It adds fuel to my speculation that perhaps we can't many of our own thoughts.

E. Elle said...

Now when I have those rare moments when I think I'm talented, I'll be wondering if I'm just overrating myself! Ugh, vicious cycle.

LCS249 said...

oh god, I hope not ...

wendy said...

Omitted a word in my post, above. Should be: '...can't trust many of our own thoughts.'

ryan field said...

This is interesting. I feel better now about not being confident.

Marilyn Peake said...

Nathan,

Glad you didn't mind me chiming in. Great discussion here.

Scott said...

I totally buy into this theory. I didn't realize it had an actual Proper Noun Effect name, but I've said it for years. Back when I managed a bunch of tech writers and editors, I saw it every time it was time for reviews, as well as at other times.

The really good people tend to know there's room to improve and more to learn. People who think they're at the top of their game often haven't learned enough to know they don't know it all.

There are exceptions, of course, but I saw it all the time.

Mira said...

Okay, now the second part of this interesting discussion is about writer recruitment.

This is a management problem.

How do you recruit writers who may be very good, but either low in confidence and/or doubt themselves easily.

Perhaps the current system of struggle/rejection/pushing against odds and competition would work very well for the business types who run the publishing world. But it may be the exact wrong way to recruit more sensitive but talented writers.

And before someone says, "oh well, some drop off the wayside, but we'll use the ones that are left" let me remind you that (I've been told) 85% of books do not earn out.

I believe there is a better way to recruit writers who tend to doubt themselves easily, especially under pressure.

Nathan, I think you may be onto something here.

In fact, I think you very much are on to something very important here.

My two cents and two long posts, for what it's worth. :)

t c sherf said...

Thanks for the post, Nathan. I've been getting mired down in a swamp of self-doubts lately. It helps to think that maybe there's a better reason for those doubts than the alternative--that I'm really not very good!

Seriously, your post made me want to sit down and write right now. So, thanks!

Ishta Mercurio said...

What a great discussion! Nathan, thank you for this post.

I can definitely see this theory in action - I know plenty of genuinely talented people who, while obviously successful and talented, don't think of themselves as the Queen or King Bee, and continue to learn and develop their craft.

I do wonder, as a few others have commented, if the nature of the way careers in the arts tend to develop contributes to this. In theatre, writing, music, dance, etc., - probably because art and creative expression are personal experiences for both the creator and the recipient - you work and work and work on something until it is just right and then you face rejection after rejection, trying to find that "best fit" with an agent or casting director or editor. Many agents and editors have said: "If I don't personally fall in love with it, I just won't take it on, even if it's really great." In theatre and film, you can give an awesome audition, but not get cast because you're too short or too skinny or too tan or you remind the casting director of his awful Aunt Nellie who embarrassed him in front of the whole family last Hannukah. The arts business is basically a business of rejection; getting the job is the gravy.

So we have a bunch of really talented people, who have honed their craft for years, who still struggle with confidence because despite their talent, they're having trouble finding that "match made in Heaven" that will boost their career up to the next level.

Debbie said...

I am extremely lacking in the confidence department as far as writing goes...this post made me actually believe for one second that I might be alright. So thanks!

Anonymous said...

Was this why I was so surprised when they told me I was going to graduate summa cum laude?

sharonedge said...

This reminds me of a quote (paraphrased): The trouble with the world is that fools are so sure of themselves and geniuses so unsure.

Does anybody know who said this?

clindsay said...

So THAT explains George W. Bush's presidency...

Linnea said...

Interesting. It might explain why some really talented young writers I've read in the past are so crippled by insecurity that they never submit anything for publication. Such a shame. Now we need to know the antidote, if there is one.

Yvonne said...

I'm so glad I read this. It gives me hope to think my lack of confidence might actually have a postive side.

At the same time it neatly explains the Republican behavior in the House.

WitLiz Today said...

40 score and seven years ago, there was what was known as the Melville-Shakespeare effect, being that the first wrote an allegory likening whale hunting to becoming an author, (post-modern interpretation) and the second, wrote allegorical plays about the neo-primitive, oxymoronic human condition and the vein of self-doubt that runs through all of us from the time we're born; the consequences of which, (referring to the latter), can lead to making bad choices in the blackest hours of our self-doubt, unless, as a writer we liken ourselves unto the first, in which case self-doubt is overcome by sticking best-selling harpoons into the gargantuan white pie hole of whaledom known as publishing; thus promulgating the notion that sure-fire success is achieved not only through hard work and sacrifice of self, but also through the care and feeding of the writer’s ego; that is to say, once the writer has conquered all self-doubt in a whale of a big way!

Unless! said writer maketh the mistake of reading Melville and Shakespeare before conquering all of this self-doubt; in which case, the cup of self-denigration may overfloweth and lead to a Shakespearean comedy of epic proportions! in the which the writer borrows Melville's harpoon and puts a spectacular end to writing blubber, I mean rubbish!!

For evermore, quoth the Raven. For evermore.

(Warning: poetic license currently under suspension for WBS. Shhh)

Anonymous said...

Nathan, this is totally unrelated to this post, but I've been trying to send you a query and the email keeps getting returned to me as being unable to be sent. Any suggestions on how to remedy this?

Nathan Bransford said...

anon-

We're having some work e-mail problems so hold off for now. I'm hoping things will be resolved tomorrow. Sorry for the inconvenience.

Laura said...

I see this all the time in my work. I teach art - drawing and painting.

New students often boast how good they are and how they don't need to take any drawing, only to learn later that it was what they needed most. I think part of it comes from the fact that they don't know enough about the subject to be objective. They literally can't see the flaws in their work. Later, when they learn how to make things more accurate, they notice all the things they need to fix. It can take a hit on their confidence, but I only have to remind them that this is the first step to really being an artist. :)

Leila said...

This thread has been very interesting to follow!

At the end of the day, I think it's all about keeping things in perspective.

This was one study, focussed on a particular research question, tested on a predetermined sample group (numbers, size, cultural composition), with a particular bias, a particular testing methodology and a particular assessment methodology to glean a particular set of results.

But it's still just one study, that tucks into one area of cognitive theory, and it has to be examined in a much broader context before results can be applied.

We human beings are so complex that we can't be so easily compartmentalized and judgements made on an isolated basis about any aspect of our personality, cognitive capability, behaviour, etc.

In and of itself the results show something, but we don't know who paid for the research, why it was established in the first place, on what basis the questions were formulated, etc. So, perspective is a good thing...and it just means that, without too much angst, we can take something away from it that teaches us something about ourselves. Or helps us ask another question which might lead us to learn something about ourselves, particularly in relation to writing (in this context).

Ok, I know I sound boring, but it was fun to read, and I admit it!

Leila said...

Laura

Great point and so universally true.

Bernard S. Jansen said...

Most people live in the area of "unconcious incompetence". We don't know we're not any good, and we may even think we're brilliant, or that "anyone can do it". Think: "Money for nothing and your chicks for free" (Dire Straits).

Some of us have the devestating ephiphany that they are no good. This brings us to "concious incompetence". Our competence hasn't changed; we're just now aware of it.

Slowly, we may - or may not - climb our way toward "concious competence".

The brilliant geniuses amongst us skips the above steps and lands in "unconcious competence". They're the best, but they don't know it. Their competence unconciously judges their own work and makes them feel inferior.

Stephen Prosapio said...

This theory helps justify my practice of trying to read middle-of-the-road novels while writing. When writing really *great* stuff, I feel dejected as though I'll never get to that level. Reading bad stuff just makes me frustrated. There's that window of work in between that helps both entertain me and stimulate my brain without making me feel like a non-skilled writer.

Peter Dudley said...

I googled drunken-kegger effect but didn't come up with the same link. I think the internet might be broken because if there's anything I'm really good at, it's googling.

Amy said...

This reminds me of a quote from Steven Pressfield's The War of Art:

"If you find yourself asking yourself (and your friends), "Am I really a writer? Am I really an artist?" chances are you are. The counterfeit innovator is wildly self-confident. The real one is scared to death."

Donna Hole said...

Hmm; I wonder which I suffer from?

Guess it'll take landing an Agent to find out.

..........dhole

Claire Dawn said...

I have often wondered, while watching American Idol, how some people got that far and noone ever told them they sounded horrible. But now I wonder if people told them and they just refused to hear it.

Also, since I think my writing's crap, I am clearly in line for a Pulitzer in the not too distant future! :D

PS, what on earth were you doing to discover this?

Clara said...

And all this time I thought I was being a perfectionist or too hard on myself! Lovely post Nathan!

girlgeum said...

Is this a case of nature vs nurture of someone's ego, or lack there of, with a stroke of to what degree a person believes in their ability to do and accomplish a particular something?

Kaitlyne said...

If it means my writing's awesome, I'm all for it. :D

Kate Evangelista said...

What happens to those who are good but people tell them they suck? Or, is that a whole different can of worms?

Kate Evangelista said...

And then, what about those people who really suck but people around them tell them they are good? And around we go.

howdidyougetthere said...

I get it!! This is why teens think they know everything.

Survival mechanism. If we felt this overwhelmed from the start we'd never accomplish anything.

jongibbs said...

Wow, in that case I must be fantastic, 'cause everybody I know lacks confidence in my writing ;)

JDuncan said...

I have confidence in my ability to develop a good story. The application part, using the words to tell it, maybe not as much. I'm of the opinion that one can always be a better writer. There is no end to that struggle, no end goal where one can say, "I'm the best writer I can be." I guess in this regard, there should always be some level of lacking in confidence with writers, because how can you now where you are along that continuum? I certainly don't. I just know I have a lot of room to grow as a writer. Readers who like your work certainly help. Having an editor buy your book helps even more.

S.D. said...

I make no pretenses to assume I have this "cognitive bias" instead of just being bad :D

insidethewritersstudio said...

Well, now when my husband gets weird about me telling him, on those days, that I absolutely suck and should probably do something else, I can say, "No, no! This is good! Because what I'm really saying is that I'm fantastic. You dig?"

;)

M. Hockaday said...

Hmmm, I would love to think I suffer from this effect, but I could just be fooling myself and really not be that great of a writer. Thanks for the insight though :) Self-deprication - it's like the # 1 trait of knowing you are in fact a writer.

Dara said...

Makes sense. I've always been told I'm my own worst critic and it follows what that's saying.

James Scott Bell said...

Among my professional writer friends, it seems the more prolific, the more this effect takes place. One friend says she thinks it's only a matter of time before someone rips back the curtain, points and shouts "Fraud!"

Also, I think standards go up, we know more the more we write, and see ever more clearly how high we have to jump. But I also think that's a good thing, an inducement to keep working hard.

Anonymous said...

I don't know, I think some of this might be envious by this Dunning-Kruger person. Either you have talent or you don't. Writing a fiction novel has never been a chore or dilemma for me.

At the risk of sounding a tad arrogant, some of we writers are born with talent. To formulate a basic analogy, it's like the dude from Northern Indiana stepping up and taking the big shot against Kansas at the end of the game. There's no easy replication for it---why some people like he and I have the ability to come out of nowhere and shock the world, accept to say that it is God given in the genes. You need to have confidence when you sit down and write. Close your eyes, see the story and let it flow. As my sister said when I told her about my idea for the book: You can't hide genius.

Now, before people start soliciting me for help or advice or asking me how I do it so easily, let me be clear that unlike Nathan, I don't have a blog, am not an agent or query rep, and I am just starting out my novel. To be honest with you, time is tight, which is the main (better yet, only) reason I have yet to write a fiction book, I just happened to see this post which struck a chord and I just wanted to add my two cents to the mix.

Malia Sutton said...

This certainly takes "The Peter Principle" to another level.

Elliot Grace said...

okay...so now we can all safely claim that we suck...from a medical standpoint:)

Peter Dudley said...

Hey, Malia... should I take that personally?

Malia Sutton said...

Peter Dudley...Only if you've already reached your own personal level of incompetence...lol :)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Principle

Peter Dudley said...

But... isn't that the point of this post? How will I know when I've reached my level of incompetence?

My wife is no help in this matter. According to her, I've been exceeding maximum incompetence for several years. So I guess I can be proud of overachieving in at least one area.

Sharon A. Lavy said...

I am such a horrible pitcher. And it is for one of those reasons I'm sure. But which? Hmmm

Richard Levangie said...

I see the Dunning-Kruger affect repeatedly in my work as a activist fighting against global warming. Folks who don't have a university degree in science seem to think that can go toe-to-toe with PhDs who have been in the field for 30 years, and who have won every scientific award out there.

It's ridiculous. And it's one reason that I've taken this year off to finish my young adult novel.

Alpha-Mom said...

When I was young, I fell into camp one. Over confident. Now that I'm older and wiser, I fall into camp two. Now, if I could just find a happy medium between them. :D

Josin L. McQuein said...

This is the scientific principle behind 97% of contestants on American Idol.

(Though, in their defense, they probably do sound better to themselves than they do to others. Sound passing through bone into the ear - what you hear when you speak - has a better tone than sound passing through open air - what others hear when you speak.)

Robert A Meacham said...

I find myself digesting so many different writing styles and sometimes unclear of the voice I want to project. At least I want my material to be worthy for readers. I am always critical of my work.

Moira Young said...

Perry Robles (and others who've expressed similar sentiments) -

I, too, often bounce between the two extremes. It becomes a constant war between confidence and humility, and we need both.

IMHO, it's important to write with confidence (else I'd never get anything written) and then accept feedback with humility. Rinse and repeat as needed.

Really, the Dunning-Kruger effect just points to the need to be more self-aware than anything. For example, I like to constantly remind myself that the learning never stops. I'll still have a lot to learn even when I do get published (and I say "when" instead of "if" not to be egotistical, but because I don't think it's wrong to treat it as an attainable goal). Hopefully, if I stay in touch with myself, I won't go too far in either direction.

Anonymous said...

LOL @ Anon 757 = beautiful illustration of the idea of the overconfident for no reason writer, well struck!

Kathryn Magendie said...

*laughing* - what Abby said about "American Idol Syndrome!"

Sometimes writers don't recognize what's "good" in their writing. I mean, someone will contace me about something in a story, essay, or my book, and say "*this part* was *insert something really nice about my stuff here*" and I'll think, "That? That part is good? But. . . but, I was going to delete that part" . . . good thing I didn't delete it *laugh* and alternatively, the very thing I thought people would say "*this and so* was pure GEEEEN-NEEE-US!" is passed over like the bread from the day before yesterday.

Huhn.

Jess said...

Interesting! So where do I fit if I can recognize when something I write is quality material, but I still think there is room for improvement--LOTS of improvement--in the rest of my writing. I know everyone has good days and bad days, but how do you learn to recognize when you're just being too self critical and when you're being realistic?

Anita Saxena said...

This just makes things more complicated. It's one thing to think you suck. But, now you're telling me if I think I suck then I'm most likely pretty good. But then if I think I'm good, then it means that I probably suck. Right?

Michael said...

This confirms it. I'm brilliant! Wait, if I think that, then I really suck. So, I suck!

Emily White said...

A bit of a Catch 22. This explanation gives me hope that maybe, just maybe I have talent. But wait, now I think I might be good. D'oh!

Raquel Byrnes said...

Wow, that would be great to find out about myself.

Amber J. Gardner said...

Okay, but what about the writer who switches from thinking they're good to they're bad, and when people say they're good, they don't believe them, but secretly think they can be future bestsellers and/or Oscar winners, but hate to say that outloud?

You know, like me? XD

worstwriterever said...

Ah but this fails to discuss the bipolar effect on this syndrome.

One week the person feels like a writing superhero, the next a writing toilet brush.

MM said...

Okay, so excuse my stupidity, but how does the title reflect what you just quoted?

Anonymous said...

@ anon at 10:16, glad you liked it. A little bored at work and decided to put forth a humble attempt at humor. I thought it was funny, hope some other people did, too.

Anonymous said...

Yes, anon, you were funny. I am smiling, but I don't get the title of this post.

Sliding on the Edge said...

Now I have to re-read that WIP and figure out if a good writer wrote it or a writer with a super ego did. Arrrg! :-)

Margaret said...

Okay, I have to laugh at this.

The reason for the laughter is simple. I started out in editorial. I was darn good at my job, but the team appreciated me even more for the way I could get them back up and running before tech support made their way up to the editorial floor.

I just didn't get why they thought it was so difficult. I clearly had no affinity with computers. My one attempt at a program (when I was 13) had been a complete failure because of a bug I didn't notice until after the class.

A friend kicked me down to Systems a couple years later, and I'm now a freelance programmer as well as writing.

The crux of my inability to see my computer skills? My mother taught me how to write batch files. If my mother taught me, therefore everyone's mothers taught them, therefore it was nothing special and everyone could do it. Right?

So yes, if it's relatively easy, then anyone can do it and we're not any better at it than the average joe. Makes perfect sense to me, even when it should make no sense at all.

Rachel Hamm said...

Wow. I'd never heard of this, but I guess it explains why I always got A's on papers in high school and college that I thought sucked! And I'm not saying that to be conceited. I would literally turn in a paper and want to vomit because I thought it was so terrible and it would always be returned with an A!

But now I wonder if I think I suck at writing fiction because I actually do suck at writing fiction, or because I am actually competent but have this syndrome...

V said...

I think that most people who can pen novels must have a degree of intelligence. And intelligent people know if they are not good at something and should call it a day. The trouble is the people who are any good don't necessarily doubt their ability, they doubt the reaction it will receive by others and feel embarassed to admit if they feel it is good. Because admitting that you think the work you've slaved over for months and agonised over every line of dialogue, is good, would make you sound pretentious in the eyes of the people around you. Confidence, or over confidence, is not a pretty trait, but to continuously play the martyr can be damned annoying too. My work isn't prize winning material but if i thought i was totally crap i wouldn't waste my time or anyone else's. i trudge on , in confusion.

Zoe Courtman said...

Wow, does that ever make me feel better!! I'm ALWAYS in the oily doldrums when writing, doing the Writer Flail, feeling that the chapters suck when...maybe they don't after all? Huh. *brightens*

Ann Marie Wraight said...

Thoroughly enjoyed your thoughts on this; studied social psychology in the UK years ago and it made me feel young again!! I'd just like to share my muse (or views) with you on this...

So, you lack confidence? Don't miss the fun!
You're brilliant? You're Einstein? Use too much the pun?
Don't despair, don't give up we're here to support
Dunning 'n' Kruger don't suggest to abort!
The key is to love, to enjoy what you do
THEN revisions, beta readers review and REVIEW!

NO - of course I do NOT write poetry but Young Adult...but maybe it really does suck more than my poetry?
Anyway, I totally agree with Ted Cross who said "The more you learn the less you know"

Brian Miller said...

intriguing post...

Nic said...

interesting - i've always known that i have an inferiority complex but sometimes i have a superiority complex. My parents keep telling myself that i underestimate myself when i don't think that's true!

Donna Tagliaferri said...

I am now conflicted as to whether or not I am as terrible as I think I am or better than I think I am. Before reading this I was safely in the harbor of self doubt...now I must sail out into the waters of exploration.....oh no! I am just as awful as I thought....

Anonymous said...

Oh god, this is worrying me because I am confident in my writing for the most part :\ I think it's mostly because many people have told me they liked it and now I roll with the idea. Then again, I've also had to retrain myself to stop thinking so many negative thoughts so I won't become miserably depressed. Maybe it's a part of that.

Anonymous said...

This may explain Congress

Lisa_Gibson said...

Very interesting indeed. Gives one pause for thought.

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