Monday, July 4, 2016

How Authors Know If They’re Being Too Hard On Themselves (Or Not)


The Dunning–Kruger Effect is a psychological concept that people who are unskilled tend to judge themselves more competent than they really are, while people who are experienced tend to have a lower sense of confidence in their field.

Then there’s also the reality that self-loathing exists in all forms, and when you’ve seen the “seams” of the monster go together, rather than first being exposed to the end result, you’re going to have different, less enthusiastic reaction.

I, for once, constantly tell people to trust their instincts on their own work, respect their opinions, and at the end of the day, the writer’s taste supersedes anyone else’s. But that’s only when they are trying to listen to others as well, and are genuinely looking to push their book to be the best it can be. I know often people are unwilling to evaluate their own work out of fear and make poor, counterproductive decisions even when being warned against them. This is incredibly frustrating, burns bridges, and, of course, can find the artist in a huge mess that’s hard to climb out of.

So how do you know? How can you tell if your nagging feelings of doubt are accurate warning signs that the book could be better? How can you tell that they’re not just fear preventing you from putting yourself out there? How do you know if people’s naysaying is due to jealousy, closed-mindedness, or competition, or when it’s based in an awareness that you can’t see yet?

How do you know if you’re being too hard on yourself or really need a lot more work?

For starters, it doesn’t necessarily matter.

A lot of people say that a writer’s biggest mistake is trying to publish too early. I think in a lot of contexts the problem is the higher likelihood of discouragement—you get anyone early enough and they’ll quit—and the fact that someone has to deal with slogging through it. But if you are submitting to contests or competitive publications and can stomach getting rejected, active seeking of publication can really speed up the learning process and make you more comfortable dealing with that sort of thing.

Plus, most will tell you persistent writers are the ones who succeed. We all know someone who wasn’t the best but was successful due to their passion and commitment, while someone we loved quit without so much as a rejection. As a person who spent the first decade writing without showing it to anyone, I’d say there are a lot of benefits to trying to get your work out there as much as possible. Yes, I still recommend not publishing something that you yourself know isn’t ready, but if you feel like it might be and there’s a good chance it’s just fear, maybe you should try and see what happens with it.

However, in other contexts, there are some bigger problems with this attitude. Anyone who is considering self-publishing, for example, needs to think about the consequences of having a possibly “bad” book out there. Once it goes up, you’ll never be sure you can completely remove it. Even nowadays in which self-publication is losing its stigma, having an unsuccessful indie novel looks poor in the traditional route. I mean, what does it say? Maybe you’re not a very good gauge of quality? Possibly impatient? At the very least it tells the publishers that your success is completely dependent on what they can do for you. Even if we were to write off all the negatives of what went into that decision, it doesn’t say anything positive.

Now, just because you’ve had an unsuccessful book isn’t the end of the world, but if you have yet to publish and are considering going the independent route first, it becomes more important to be aware of your level of “competence” prior to actually taking that step.

The less time you’ve been writing, the more research you should do.

There’s not a hard and fast time limit in which you cross over from unskilled amateur to expert. People learn different things at different speeds, and the amount you write will also affect your judgment. Plus, personality can cause the Dunning-Kreger Effect to last much longer than it should; some people go their entire lives refusing to evaluate themselves. Others evaluate themselves way too much and need to calm the hell down for their own sanity’s sake.

I would hazard a guess, to be taken as a hazard guess, that if you’ve been really writing (as in writing most days) for less than a year, you should do more self-reflection and research to familiarize yourself with how you actually compare before taking any big steps to reveal yourself to the public. This will help you to find out if there’s something you don’t know you don’t know.

This is not solely due to this Kreger effect, but is beneficial even if you are a naturally talented author. Mostly, it will give you more confidence, save you from poor deals and bad advice, and enable you to stand up for yourself in a well-informed, intelligent way. It’ll help you to not make irritating or embarrassing mistakes and not allow yourself to be walked all over by some opinionated asshat while not looking like an asshat yourself.

-Read a lot, in your genre especially.

-Aim high, but know what typical results are.

-Learn conventional advice, making a point to understand why people believe in it and why it’s so widely repeated even if you ultimately decide it’s not right for you.

The big mistakes people make early on is thinking they’re doing something original that is incredibly common, thinking it will be easy then judging themselves too harshly when it isn’t, making nonsensical decisions based on destiny, and cutting corners in important places while arguing it as “artistic.” By understanding more about what other people’s experiences are—what they’re reading, how their publication process went, what they did to circumvent unlucky or shallow issues—you will have more confidence and a better understanding on how people are going to react to your work.

On the flip side, if you have been writing for five or more years and still aren’t “ready,” it’s likely you are reacting to something other than talent.

Listening to what others have to say is not about obedience.

I think the hardest part of dealing with someone who seems to misgauge his competence is his refusal to listen to others. Now, I want to say it takes two to tango and you must be aware that sometimes those who hate “not being listened to,” are the ones who do the least listening themselves. This means that just because someone is accusing you of being defensive doesn’t necessarily say you are. It’s possible they’re projecting their arrogance onto you, and that by not immediately obeying they unfairly think you are disrespecting them.

When you’re trying to see whether or not you’re being intentionally obtuse to criticism…

-Accept that they really might be being an asshole and don’t shame yourself for thinking it’s possible.

-But assume that it’s just a matter of miscommunication. Try to get on the same page as them and follow their thought process.

-If you realize they’re right about something, take it and make them feel good about it. If you aren’t sure, keep digging. It’s okay to not immediately agree. Keep a good attitude, but don’t let them strong-arm you.

-Look for specific flaws in their logic or different priorities and tastes. If you can find where their thinking “slips up,” (like they don’t realize that a science-fiction planet can be completely imaginary) then you know you’re not just being defensive. If you disagree on what a book should do (Does a character have to be likable?) feel free to explore further, asking (them or yourself) why they feel that way, why you don’t, and what will apply to more people.

-You can wait to make changes until receiving more feedback from others.

-If, however, you write them off without really understanding why they’re wrong, as in you couldn’t write up a convincing argument for an objective bystander, then it is a sign that you are being defensive and obtuse. If your arguments ONLY involve, “Well, they’re jealous,” or “stupid,” or “have no taste,” it suggests you’re not really listening and are afraid of the answers.

Have as many people read it as possible, yourself included.

This, bare minimum, will set you up to better expect how people will react to your work. The big problem with writing is if someone wants to find a flaw, they’re going to. Trying to write something beyond criticism is like trying to pick a color beyond criticism. Someone will have a problem with it if for the sole reason they want to. New writers are more sensitive to critiques and are more likely to be discouraged. The more experience you have, the more you learn what to expect, the more confident you are in your philosophy, and the less you care about whether or not you will succeed; you’ve developed this habit and even if you did find out that you will never be a best seller, you wouldn’t know what to do with yourself.

I think it’s wise to try and figure early on how much you can trust your gut judgement and how much is just your naivety or ego. The faster you gain self-awareness the more confident, fun, and competent you are. A big part of doing so is about informing yourself on alternative perspectives.

-Be aware of how you feel about your work before asking others for their opinion. This will enable you to feel better about negatives, recognize actual hostility, trust their compliments, and make more informed decisions about why you disagree and what you actually care about. ALWAYS read your own work.

-Get a wide variety of opinions from experienced authors, friends, family, teachers, peers, non-writing readers, agents, editors, whoever you can get your hands on. Different personalities and different life-experiences will offer up alternative perspectives and help you understand the difference between universal truths, fads, and hypotheticals.

-Don’t give people your book to be “evaluated,” give it to them for information. You are not asking people to tell you how good you are, you are asking them to show you what they see that you can’t.

-Pay attention at “trends” in your critiques. If you get feedback from different people and the experience tends to be the same, especially in negative aspects, it might be a moment to look back, find the common denominators, and see how you are able to improve the process. It may be you and your attitude or it might be something about the environment or some other factor. Most likely, it’s a mixture of things, but you’ll know if it’s something you can control when the only thing that stays the same is you. If, however, there are other shared aspects—they’re all your fellow college students for instance—it could also be that that situation isn’t beneficial to your process. If you feel the same way about every piece you’ve made, love or hate, it suggests that your opinion is being influenced by your view on yourself.

If you want to better trust your instinct, consider if you have…

1)  Read what you’ve written.
2) Constructively analyzed the qualities and flaws of your work yourself.
3) Received outside feedback from multiple, diverse sources.
4) Sought out what you’re being compared to.
5) Examined opinions that differ from yours.

If you have done these things, feel informed and in control, and yet still have a nagging doubt that you’re not good enough, that’s a huge sign that it has more to do with you and your fear than it does with the actual writing itself. If you haven’t, these steps will help you gain confidence and put that doubt to rest if not find ways that your writing can be improved.


The best way to get rid of fear is to gain control over the situation. Knowledge is power for a reason.



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