What It Takes

The world is full of aspiring writers of fiction. Most of them, sad to say, cheerfully crank out work that’s very, very bad. A few of them will improve over time, but most of them won’t.

I’ve puzzled over this phenomenon for many years. Why don’t bad writers see that they’re doing it badly? Why don’t they buckle down and get better? An explanation came to me recently in the form of a comment from a friend. In a different context entirely, he mentioned the Dunning-Kruger effect. I had never heard of it, so I had to look it up. (Thank you, wikipedia!)

Dunning and Kruger, working at Cornell University, did some nice statistical research to document the fact that stupid people routinely overestimate their own competence. When they do badly at a task, they think they’re doing it pretty well. Bright people, meanwhile, routinely overestimate others’ competence. We tend to assume that others are just as well equipped to tackle intellectual challenges as we are.

When it comes to bad writing, bad writers literally do not see that their writing is bad. To them, it looks just fine. To them, their own work looks very much like the work of their favorite professional writers — perhaps in need of a little polish, which an editor can easily supply, but certainly not bad.

How can you tell whether you have what it takes? You can’t. None of us can! You have to go with your gut, and your gut may be lying to you. I certainly think I have what it takes as a fiction writer (and my agent seems to agree), but both my agent and I may be wrong.

One difference between a good writer and an inadequate writer, I think, is that an inadequate writer trusts her gut almost to the exclusion of any other source of information. More than once I’ve suggested to aspiring writers that they needed to devote some attention to aspect X or Y of their work, only to have my criticisms angrily dismissed as irrelevant.

Aren’t all writers entitled to write however they want to, they cry? Yes — certainly. I write exactly what I personally want to, too! Couldn’t do it any other way. The difference is, I’ve studied the craft. I have an educated gut. The principles of effective fiction writing that I picked up along the way from an assortment of books on how to write have sunk into my gut. Today my gut will inform me (I hope!) when something isn’t up to a professional standard.

Art Barnes used to be the conductor of the Livermore Symphony. He was an irascible old guy, and probably still is, but he said one thing whose wisdom has stuck with me. One of the wind players would make a mistake in rehearsal. Art would point out the mistake — and then, from the podium, he could see that the player hadn’t picked up a pencil. Art would say, “Write it in the part. Write it in the part! Do you know the difference between a professional musician and an amateur? A professional worries that he might make that mistake again, so he writes a reminder in the part. The amateur thinks he’ll remember, so he doesn’t write it in the part, and then he forgets and makes the same mistake again.”

The details differ, but I’d say a professional writer is one who understands that there are many, many ways to make a mistake, and takes the trouble to learn how to avoid the mistakes. The inadequate writer either doesn’t know that a particular type of mistake exists — a viewpoint shift, say, or the failure to have a character act in a natural, sensible way — or knows vaguely that such a mistake exists and senses dimly that this particular paragraph might not have entirely avoided the mistake, but thinks his or her writing is just so naturally brilliant that the brilliance will overshadow any niggling little slips of the pen.

In the end, you have to trust your gut. But you also need to understand that your gut may be lying to you.

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