by Jim Denney
Many aspiring writers assume that, because they’ve done a lot of reading, they know how to write. This is almost never true. Writing is a craft that must the mastered through intensive study and practice. The problem is that most beginning writers don’t realize how much they don’t know.
Novelist Charles Bukowski once said, “The problem is that bad writers tend to have the self-confidence, while the good ones tend to have self-doubt.” He was describing a principle known as the Dunning-Kruger effect — a cognitive bias that leads incompetent people to think they have superior ability.
If you’ve ever attended a writing class or a local writers’ group, you’ve probably met a few examples of the Dunning-Kruger effect — wannabe writers whose work is atrocious on every level, yet who behave in a smug, condescending, know-it-all way toward others in the group. The problem with incompetent writers is that they lack sufficient awareness to recognize their own incompetence.
The Dunning-Kruger phenomenon was identified in a series of experiments by psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger at Cornell University in 1999. Their research was focused on the case of a bank robber who smeared lemon juice on his face during his robberies. Why lemon juice? Well, lemon juice can be used as an invisible ink. The robber reasoned that, by smearing lemon juice on his face, he would make his face invisible to the surveillance cameras. Brilliant, eh?
Many beginning writers approach the craft in a similar way. Thinking they know it all, they publish their clumsy early efforts, fully expecting the world to applaud their brilliance — then they sulk and seethe over their non-existent sales and scathing Amazon reviews. They don’t realize they have lemon juice on their faces.
Herewith a confession: In my early writing career, I had a case of Dunning-Kruger myself. I was a young writer in my twenties, I was getting work published, and I thought I knew all I needed to know about writing. I rarely read a book on the craft of writing, and I never attended a writer’s conference or workshop. In my youthful arrogance, I didn’t know I had lemon juice on my face.
Today I have more than a 130 books to my credit (having worked with many publishers including Simon & Schuster, St. Martin’s, Thomas Nelson, Hachette, and more). I’ve been making my living as a full-time writer since 1989. But I no longer think I know it all. Not even close. In fact, I probably read thirty or more books on writing every year. Though I know so much more about writing than I did when I was in my twenties, I’m driven by a constant hunger to know more.
Hemingway understood. Shortly before his death in 1961, he told an interviewer, “We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.” If Hemingway considered himself an “apprentice” after earning the Nobel Prize for Literature, then I have all the more reason to be humble and eager to learn.
If you aspire to be a writer, I’d encourage you to study the elements of writing — character, viewpoint, milieu, plot, structure, and more. Learn the principles and technical aspects of the writing craft. Read books by great teachers of the craft. Attend writers’ conferences and workshops.
I’ve learned — the hard way — to always approach writing with the attitude of an apprentice, not a master. We writers need to stay humble — if we don’t want to get caught with lemon juice on our faces.
And if you’d like to learn more about how to write faster, more freely, and more brilliantly than you ever thought possible, read my book Writing In Overdrive, available in paperback and ebook editions at Amazon.com. —J.D.