The Dunning-Kruger Effect (Or, Dealing with Author Despair Syndrome)

Dunning Kruger FoxPrint Tiffany Yates Martin

The Dunning-Kruger Effect (Or, Dealing with Author Despair Syndrome)

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Think about what it felt like when you first started writing. Most of us were drawn to this field because of our deep love of story and a strong creative impulse, and our earliest writings were probably easy, fun, joyful expressions of our creativity. How awesome to make up people and stories and worlds in our head and be able to put it on the page. The ultimate game of make-believe, where readers get to play along.

But then maybe you send that piece of writing to someone, or you join a critique group, or you start submitting it, and suddenly you start getting feedback that your little baby isn’t as perfect and delightful as you thought.

People start pointing out the shortcomings in it. Maybe your plot doesn’t hold together, your characters aren’t believable, there’s nothing at stake. Maybe your story is all interiority and no action. Maybe it’s clumsy in places, heavy-handed. Maybe you left out essential elements you didn’t even know you needed, like suspense and tension or a cohesive through line. Maybe you said the same thing over and over in fifteen ways, or strung together a series of entertaining little vignettes that don’t add up to a story.

Suddenly this exact same piece of work that you felt so good about at first, that gave you so much confidence, now feels foundationally flawed. Inadequate. Your confidence sinks. You suck. You should quit writing. Whatever made you think you could do this? Everyone will see through you to the no-talent you actually are.

This is the Dunning-Kruger Effect, a psychological phenomenon I just learned about in a Creative Elements podcast episode where host Jay Krouse interviewed Tim Urban of the brilliant Wait But Why blog. It’s where a person tends to overestimate their knowledge early in learning something new, and underestimate it as they gain more knowledge and skill.

Or as I like to think of it, Author Despair Syndrome (ADS).

Read more: Attack of the Inner Demons

Imagine a simple graph where the y-axis is confidence and the x-axis is knowledge. According to the Dunning-Kruger scale, initially people overestimate their knowledge of a topic and thus have higher confidence. (Or, as it’s termed in this post, Mount Stupid.)

As their knowledge grows they understand the complexity of the subject much more deeply and realize how much they actually don’t know. Their confidence decreases even as their knowledge increases.

It usually looks like this:

(Highly scientific image created by author)

The reality, though, is that at this point you actually know much more about writing than you did when you first sat down to pound out a yarn. You are undoubtedly a much better writer now than you were when you started, or five years ago, or five months ago, or even five days ago. The more you learn, the better you get. And yet the more you realize how much there is still to learn. You’ve moved along the x-axis of knowledge, but dropped on the y-axis of confidence.

Otherwise known as impostor syndrome.

Read more:Impostor Syndrome

Learning about the Dunning-Kruger concept felt unexpectedly comforting to me. It suggests that those times when we may begin to despair about our talent or skill or accomplishments are indicators of just how far we’ve progressed in those very areas.

It’s easy for a fledgling writer to think they’re going to be the next Hemingway—we’ve all seen versions of this in comically cocky query letter examples, or mentally rolled our eyes hearing newer writers espousing how they’ve written a modern masterpiece—when they have little conception of exactly how complex the skills are trying to master really are.

But it’s when we actually start to get good at this that we may feel least good about it.

Knowing about the Dunning-Kruger Effect can be a great way to counter Author Despair Syndrome. As the great editor Maxwell Perkins said, “If you get discouraged it is not a bad sign, but a good one. If you think you are not doing it well, you are thinking the way real novelists do. I never knew one who did not feel greatly discouraged at times, and some get desperate, and I have always found that to be a good symptom.” I find that quote so spot-on and resonant that I closed my book Intuitive Editing with it.

Read more:A Rational Antidote for Emotional Thinking

Dunning-Kruger explains why those feelings of despair about yourself and your work are good symptoms. They are signs of growth and expansion of your craft, exactly the opposite of the way we usually take them—as an indication of just how much we suck.

They’re actually showing you just how much you don’t. In fact, you know so much now that you’re able to see the shortcomings in your own work. And that’s the best place from which to begin to productively address them and make your work even better: the intersection of reality and humility.

And in the process, guess what? You’re increasing your knowledge even more. So don’t be surprised if your confidence dips again as a result: You know even more now about how much there is to know.

Maybe these dips in confidence, rather than big red flags to your psyche indicating that you are inadequate, are actually green all-clear flags signaling that you’re on the right track—full speed ahead.

Notice that in the rendering of the Dunning-Kruger scale, there’s an uptick after what we shall call the Trough of Inadequacy. At some point after your confidence is initially shaken, you begin to regain it as your knowledge of your subject deepens—notice that hopeful little upward curve on the right side of the graph.

It may never get back to the stratospheric levels of your naïve little baby author days…but let Dunning-Kruger remind you to have faith that you won’t live in the Trough of Inadequacy forever.

Does this concept resonate for you, authors? If you look back at your early days as a writer, what have you learned since then—how has your writing improved? Do you take time to reflect on how much better you are than you were?

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4 Comments. Leave new

  • This is a simultaneously comforting and disheartening phenomenon. It is so true! When I first started writing I thought I knew it all. My confidence in my work was so high. Then…it started to dip. The more I learned and the more eyes that looked at my work, the more I fell toward that 0 on the x-axis. I may still be a bit in that trough, but it’s good to know that if I keep at it, I can climb higher. Recognizing the scale of my improvement almost always becomes evident when I am helping other writers.

    • Ha! I can see that it could be disheartening, but to me it felt mostly comforting, for those moments when I (when many of us) lose sight of how far we’ve come and feel like impostors or frauds…or as if we know nothing. I LOVE your thought about realizing our own progress through helping others–win-win! Thanks for sharing, Cate.

  • Pamela Jo Keeley
    February 9, 2023 12:30 pm

    I love that you remember and quote Maxwell Perkins. He didn’t edit books. He created writers.
    Unfortunately I had the opportunity to pitch a 1st draft of my first novel to a well-known agent. I learned that rejection doesn’t mean the concept is shite. The reality is realising how far from your head version the 1st draft is. The uptick is that if I can get the reader to see the version in my head-then the readers will likely love it as much as I do. Recently I’ve had that last experience w some competition entries. I now realise the real task is finding a way to get what is in my head to the reader.

    • I love that YOU know and love Mr. Perkins! He was legendary, and is one of my rock stars. I would so love to have apprenticed with him and seen him in action. 🙂

      You make such a great point, Pamela–the main work of writing is making sure your vision on the page is as close as possible to the one in your head and as effective as possible. I.e., editing. I also love that you realize that’s not a commentary on a writer’s talent or skill or the story–it’s just the process, and it’s normal. (If it weren’t there’d be no such job description as “editor.”) I’m sorry to hear it sounds like you got a disappointing rejection–but your attitude and response to it are so healthy and productive: Back to work!


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