the dunning kruger effect, the illusion of control, and writers

I always thought taking money from writers was a particularly easy confidence game. Selling people what they want to buy is an easy, legitimate strategy, but the Dunning Kruger Effect takes a particular toll on writers. It leaves us vulnerable to less than ethical individuals.

Vanity presses sopped up tens of thousands of dollars with each of their emerald and sapphire package that promised the writer everything but the kitchen sink. It delivered boxes and boxes of unsellable books. “Publishers” like Commonweath Publishing in Edmonton and PublishAmerica in the States “bought” books from authors for pennies and held up their rights for years.

At least Commonweath went under quickly. PublishAmerica is now “American Star Books” and it’s been in business for more than two decades despite its less than sterling reputation.

The desire for the mind to fool itself is a wonder to behold. One of the forums I used to lurk on had an entire subforum dedicated to the American vanity publisher. Reading post after post of writers who either didn’t know to look for or had willingly ignored all the red flags and warnings about the “publisher” they were going to sign up was heartbreaking.

Some people would look at the number of personal stories all telling the same story and think there must be more than one sucker born every minute. But that would be a cruel assessment. Just knowing about the Dunning Kruger Effect doesn’t negate its effects. When asked to evaluate their own work, subjects aren’t likely to change their evaluation of their work even after learning that people tend to overvalue what they’ve done. The “average” person might be “fooled” by the effect, but the average person can’t think of themselves as an average person.

The biggest criticism of the effect is that people tend to think there are people susceptible to the Dunning Kruger Effect and people who are not, and every single person believes that they are not.

My classwork was a study in the illusion of control. As long as the class decided the highly competitive market only cares about the static foundational structures that describe what the character sees, says and knows, the program could teach to that ideal. Their methodology ignores all the other structures of fiction that create the dynamic elements of fiction that readers are moved by but the illusion of control is fuelled by magical thinking.

Publishamerica was so well known as a scam that warnings were plastered across the internet to the point where they had to change their name. They promised their authors an experience on par with being traditionally published and then were bombarded with high-pressure purchasing tactics that harnessed the power of FOMO by promising to send a copy of every book that sold a ridiculous amount of copies to Oprah Winfrey for her book club.

Did they? Why knows. Ms. Winfrey probably got tonnes of books submitted to her office on spec. But an author who submitted their life’s work to the first google search result may not understand what the requirements for the book club was and — more to the point — they want to believe their publisher isn’t lying to them.

Each letter by an author who was made older and wiser than before they gave their book away for a dollar. Every story was different but the level of betrayal was always the same.

For a Masters program to meet federal quality assurances, it must be at the forefront of academia and its profession. The University of British Columbia doesn’t have a pedagogical approach, which pisses on its academic requirements. It teaches students craft doesn’t even need to be learned, which pisses on writing as a profession.

But there are no red flags across the internet. Writers are told on the UBC website that they’ll be getting craft-based literary excellence in their instruction. The mission statement will promise them the program will be rigorously craft-based.

But the instruction they will get will be steeped in Dunning Kruger. Most students told their story through dialogue instead of showing the reader the world through the protagonist’s actions. It wasn’t seen as a mistake or it would have been a mistake for all of them.

Learning to show the reader the world takes practice.

The Chair, the Dean of Graduate Studies, a pedagogist, the Vice President of Academics, and the president didn’t see anything wrong with having a “pedagogy” that no one could explain on an academic level. it’s okay that their creative writing program was “taught” with a non-repeatable method the average learner couldn’t expect to learn from, having paid for their program.

It was fine because the evaluations told them students love giving up their long-term career goals for short-term ego buffing. As long excellent writers also take their program, they will continue to design their program to assume the learners will learn how to write meaningful work on their own. The UBC program only wants to teach polishing methods.

Instructors have a choice. They can teach what’s true or they can teach what has collectively been agreed as true. There’s a reason some Americans need to ban Critical Race Theory.

Creative writing instruction follows the exact same path. They can teach what’s true — most work needs revision and that revision is hard work— or they can teach what’s easy — writers should never sacrifice the structure of their first draft to craft a better reader’s experience.

The biggest lie most writers want to believe is we just need to be discovered. We already have the “telling great stories” down pat. But being discovered is an external process while learning how to write more meaningful stories that can be discovered is an internal one.

I remember how hot the humiliation had felt when I realized an agent out there was going to read the novel I’d just submitted and see it for the half-baked, unfinished work that it was. I had opened my manuscript to reassure myself that my novel was great after a seed of doubt had taken root that it wasn’t.

My novel wasn’t great at all. It would walk up to an amazing scene that — had I known how — would have shown the reader truly meaningful moments. Instead, I saw a clear pattern. If the scene had come to me like a filmed movie clip and all I had to do was transcribe what I “saw” the scene worked almost every time.

But the book only had moments of excellence. Most times, I’d walk up to that meaningful moment and then do everything I could to avoid the big moment itself. What I didn’t know how to show I told through dialogue. Complicated situations always had a simple solution that always avoided the complicated scene it would have taken to convey that moment honestly. I handwaved a lot of complications away.

Writers I respected told me 100s of times in 100s of different ways that significant moments almost always had to be shown to be felt. It took a tarot reading as a skeptic to finally hear it. I saw my manuscript only told what I couldn’t show yet.

Artistic vision is vital in crafting a better reader’s experience and yet the two concepts are taught as mutually exclusive. Any structural change to a first draft would make it worse is the worst thing an instructor can teach. But it was my program’s top secret pedagogy they hid from me until after all my coursework was done.

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