Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Useful Humility

Many people are poor judges of their own work. This may be old news to all you psychologists out there (both armchair and licensed), but I only recently read the study that proves it:

Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments

This 1999 article by Justin Kruger and David Dunning of Cornell University shows that people who are incompetent frequently over-estimate their own skills because they are too ignorant to judge whether they are good or not.

That couldn’t apply to writers, too, could it?

Yes. It’s difficult for even good writers to judge their own work, so where does that leave the bad ones? Well, pretty bad off, not to mention indignant that the publishing world is rigged against their genius.

Self-editing can only take you so far before all the words run together into meaningless mush.

Don’t get me wrong – some people work best toiling alone in isolated garrets. I always thought I was one of them, and wrote my first novel by myself, without readers or feedback until I was agented. My agent helped me take my novel so much farther than I thought I could go. She thought I could do better, and I did. My book didn't sell, but everything I learned is going into the next one.

And that includes my new belief in honest, quality feedback. As someone who wrote in isolation, I can attest to the value of a critique group like this one. I was nervous about sharing unpolished, incomplete work, but it helped that I didn’t know the rest of Operation Awesome before we started. They got to know me through my rough pages – me at my writing worst.

And if I improve, it’s in part because they pushed me into writing better and pulled me through the tough parts. Because the flipside of being Unskilled and Unaware is the writer’s other curse – believing every word is hopeless trash. And that’s the other value of critique partners – not just to tell you what’s wrong, although that’s important, but to tell you what’s good and how you can make it better.

9 comments:

  1. Awesome! Nathan Bransford talked about this a while back, too. It's a good thing to keep in mind when I start to look at my stuff and think, "Dang, I'm good." :)

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  2. Great post.

    I'm currently at that inbetween phase where I'm not sure if my writing sucks or not.

    I handed three chapters over to someone to read, and she wants more, so that's a good sign at least. But I'm still struggling with handing over my brainchild to people I don't know.

    :-)

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  3. I agree, it's hard to be completely objective. I'm amazed at what other writers point out. And when I make the suggested changes, the piece is so much stronger. But sometimes advice doesn't sit well in my gut, so I still think I'm the master of my own story. : )

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  4. That's a great post. It makes me super nervous to submit my work to other writers, but once you do so, you start to appreciate the value of feedback. Every writer knows a few of his most common flaw, but we can hardly see them all.

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  5. I'm not sure why, but the first thing that popped into my head when I began to read this was American Idol. I know it's not *quite* the same as judging our own writing, but all it takes is watching a few minutes of tryouts at the beginning of each season to see that many of the people trying out also (sometimes severely) overestimate their skills.

    I believe good and honest feedback, with the writer's and their potential readers' interests in mind, is a wonderful thing, and I used to be scared and not want many people to read my work. Now I'm so desperate for feedback and ways to improve it instead, that I'm willing to deal with whatever disappointment comes my way. Now I know, after a few days, I'll get over it. And once I'm past the initial reactions, I figure out wasy to make it better. (Side note: I go from the "I'm a genius!" to "This is the trashiest thing ever - what was I thinking!? I can't do this!!!!" a few times a week.) ;)

    Hooking an agent is an accomplishment in itself, Kelly. And like you said, now you have even better tools for your new WiP! =)

    Jessica

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  6. Okay - few typos up there... and I'm not sure if what I said even made sense... but it's late. I have a good excuse.;)

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  7. My test readers rock - I couldn't write without them!

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  8. Thanks for the comments! The other day Miriam had a post on the Dsytel and Goderich blog that put it perfectly:

    "It’s been my experience that writers (especially great writers) seem to see-saw between outsize egomania and despondent insecurity."

    http://dglm.blogspot.com/2010/10/thing-about-writers.html

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  9. Wow Kelly, you're right. Miriam's quote is spot on!;)

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