I was reading an article recently about Donald Trump that basically said the explanation for the way he behaves is something called the Dunning-Kruger effect. Wikipedia describes the Dunning-Kruger effect as “a cognitive bias in which low-ability individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their ability as much higher than it really is” – which basically means that he’s so stupid, he can’t recognise his own stupidity.
Now, I’m not a fan of Donald Trump pre- or post-election but I’m also not a fan of name-calling. I didn’t finish reading the article. But I was fascinated by the idea of the Dunning-Kruger effect and the article contained a link to another article in the Pacific Standard by David Dunning of Dunning-Kruger effect fame called “We Are All Confident Idiots”.
It’s a long article but it was a terribly interesting read, basically saying that we – all of us – are so afraid of appearing stupid in relation to things we aren’t knowledgeable about that instead of admitting our ignorance, we play along and hope nobody realises we have no idea what we’re talking about. Everybody’s ignorance is about something different and even traditionally smart people can suffer from the Dunning-Kruger effect – after all, nobody can know everything. Those with academic smarts often lack street smarts. Those with an aptitude for writing can struggle with mathematical concepts. The right side and the left side of the brain control different abilities and most people favour one over the other. As Dunning puts it, “Because it’s so easy to judge the idiocy of others, it may be sorely tempting to think this doesn’t apply to you. But the problem of unrecognized ignorance is one that visits us all.”
It got me thinking, particularly when I came to this: “To know how skilled or unskilled you are at using the rules of grammar, for instance, you must have a good working knowledge of those rules, an impossibility among the incompetent.” Dunning was simply using grammar as an example but it struck me right between the eyes. Why? Because I’ve written a lot of posts trying to offer advice for writers on how to edit their own work. I like to think I’ve been able to provide a lot of good suggestions. But those suggestions rely on a writer knowing the rules of spelling, grammar, punctuation and syntax – the things that make up language – or at least a willingness to learn them. If they don’t know these things and aren’t prepared to find out yet still try to edit their own work, then either they aren’t going to make much impact on the things that need to be edited or they could end up making their writing even worse. It’s like a Rubik’s Cube. The more you try to get back to the original configuration, the worse trouble you get yourself in and the harder it seems to be.
The closer I get to middle age (and I’m much closer now than I generally like to admit), the more I realise I don’t know. I have specialist knowledge in a few areas but not nearly as many as I would like. I wish I understood cars and engines – but I don’t. I wish I was more visually artistic – but I’m not. I wish I knew the secret to great financial wealth – but it hasn’t come to me yet. It’s certainly a very different mindset from my early twenties when I was sure I was close to knowing it all.
So is it possible that my earnest endeavours to help writers become their own editors have all been for nothing? Is it possible that I’ve been asking the impossible of them? Maybe. I can’t lump all writers into one group. After all, I’m a writer but thanks to my pedantic, language-loving nature, I’m also an editor and thanks to my training, I’m qualified to give myself that title. I can’t be the only writer who has the skills to edit their own work.
But it’s also likely that writers who can edit their own (or anyone else’s) work are a limited group in the same way that writers who can market themselves are fewer and farther between than we would all like.
“How can we learn to recognize our own ignorance and misbeliefs?” Dunning asks and offers the following answer. “For individuals, the trick is to be your own devil’s advocate: to think through how your favoured conclusions might be misguided; to ask yourself how you might be wrong, or how things might turn out differently from what you expect. It helps to try practicing what the psychologist Charles Lord calls ‘considering the opposite’. To do this, I often imagine myself in a future in which I have turned out to be wrong in a decision, and then consider what the likeliest path was that led to my failure.”
The problem with this as a solution for writers is that it doesn’t help improve editing skills. If you don’t have the knowledge you need to edit, then you aren’t going to suddenly acquire it no matter how much soul-searching you do. If you don’t seek out the knowledge you are lacking and commit to learning it, then you will remain ignorant as well as ignorant of your ignorance.
Dunning recognises this. His final instruction? “Seek advice.”
I whole-heartedly agree with him. At some point, every writer should seek advice from an editor. A good editor, an ethical editor, will edit a sample chapter without charge to demonstrate their abilities. If you’re really lucky, the editor will return the sample chapter without any changes and a recommendation that you probably don’t need their help, giving you the confidence that you really can edit your own work. If it comes back with dozens and dozens of tracked changes and only once the errors are pointed out to you do you see how necessary they were, then it’s probably in your best interests to hire that editor and pay them in order to bring your work up to a publishable standard.
Yes, hiring an editor costs money, often more money than a struggling writer will have it within their means to pay. But it’s an investment in your writing. In the same way that writing courses are an investment. In the same way that a manuscript assessment is an investment. In the same way that hiring a book cover designer is an investment. Either you’re serious about your writing or you aren’t. Hiring an editor and getting the basics right shows that you’re serious. And that readers should – and can – take your writing seriously, too.