Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Why Do People Think Writing Is Easy? Largely Because of The Dunning-Kruger Effect

If you're a writer, you know there are a lot of people out there who think what you do is easy. People who assume that, because they have the ability to pick up a pen and write intelligible sentences, that there is really very little difference between them and you. Oh sure, you might have a little more practice, maybe a few more connections, but if they wanted to be an author all they'd need is a little time. They've got stories, man, and if they wanted to they could write them up the same way you do.

You just watch, I'll write my own novel! With hookers, and blackjack!
If you've ever had to deal with these folks, then you already know they're full of shit. Because sure, they might be able to construct complete sentences, and put them into paragraphs. It's even possible they'll be able to explain a cohesive story to a reader. But as we all know, those are just a few ingredients needed to make an author. You need to mix in a lifetime of reading, stir it with genuine love of stories, and add a pinch of experience to be able to tell what does, and what doesn't, work. Just because you've got some flour and a few apples, that doesn't mean you can bake an apple pie from scratch. Even if you think you can.

So why do so many people seem to think all you need is a notebook and a few months of spare time? Well, it's complicated, but science calls it The Dunning-Kruger Effect.

Who With The What Now?

Have you ever noticed how people utterly unequipped to do a task not only think they'd be pretty good at it, but rate their performance as higher than it really should be? Well, that's the Dunning-Kruger Effect in action. In short, dumb people are too dumb to understand that they're dumb, and thus think they're doing pretty great. Or, put another way, if you completely lack a skill, then the only way you'll realize that is if you sit down and actually receive some training for that skill.

Sharon, I know you think you can do Susan's job. Trust me, you'd be as effective as a match in a hurricane.
Put into more scientific language, the Dunning-Kruger Effect is a cognitive bias. Your brain tricks itself into believing something that isn't true, despite evidence to the contrary. The original study, performed by Dunning and Kruger natch, was inspired by the curious case of a bank robber. This guy had pulled off two bank robberies before getting caught, and he did it after covering his face with lemon juice. His logic was that, since lemon juice is used in the making of invisible ink, it would obscure his identity and make him impossible to record on security cameras.

Was that one guy a lone loony for believing that? Or was that just an extreme example of how people think they've got the inside track on life every, single day? The scientists decided to find out. They asked students in a psychology course to rate their own skills in areas like grammar, logical reasoning, and even humor. Then, after students were scored on a test (how you score humor I don't know, but that's not the point), they were asked to evaluate how well they did compared to the rest of the class. People who scored well, and who had some demonstrable skill in a given area, pegged themselves pretty accurately. If anything, they underestimated their own abilities. Those who had scored poorly? Well, they figured they were still slightly above average. They weren't, though. In short, the people who belonged in the D and F categories thought they deserved at least a low B.

You Can't Explain It If They Don't Speak The Language

Among Americans (since our culture is what gives rise to this effect), there really is no winning. Even if you want to sit your co-worker, extended family member, or casual friend down to explain why writing a book is really difficult, they aren't going to get it if they lack the skills and experience in doing any of the tasks associated with it.

At the end of the day, authors really do speak our own language. A language only other authors can understand. The more you write, the better you'll be able to speak and understand that language. So, congratulations to those willing to put in that work.

Speaking of which... shouldn't you be writing?
That's all for this week's Business of Writing post. While it might sound like it belongs in the craft section, trust me, you're going to need this knowledge when you work in the business side of books, blogs, and other literary endeavors. If you'd like to stay on top of all my latest releases, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. And if you want to support me so I can keep making content just like this, head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. For $1 a month you can buy my unending gratitude, and some sweet swag. So head on over, and pledge today!


  1. You know, what pisses me off is that all the things I'm good at are things that everyone assumes they could do if they tried. Playing the bassoon or fluffing a walrus people respect, 'cause there's a specialist skill goes into those, but writing? "Pah! I learnt that in school! Fucking aced it! They made me start doing it all in joined-up letters just to give everyone else a chance! And that, Mr. Croshaw, is why I felt my background in production made me qualified to rewrite all the story copy you did for us to be more like a recent popular film." "Well, you know what I say to that, Mr. Producer? Fifty dollars an hour, please." Blimey, I wonder how people with integrity get through life?
    -Yahtzee Croshaw's review of "Sacred 3"

    1. My day is complete. I know that review, and enjoy this comment more than I can express.