Think Your Writing Sucks? That’s a Good Thing

Vivienne Raper is working on a science fiction novel with the help of the Kingston MFA.

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It takes ten thousand hours of deliberate practice to become an expert. Spend 1,040 of an estimated 6,685 leisure hours each year to actively improve your fiction writing, and you’ll be a successful writer in 10 years. That’s according to Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers: The Story of Success, which aims to debunk the myth that some people are born geniuses.

The Beatles, Bill Gates and many other exceptional people, he argues, became brilliant through deliberate practice… Practice… And more deliberate practice. They set out purposefully to improve and stretch themselves. They taught others, surrounded themselves with like-minded people, sought feedback, worked on their weak spots and evaluated their progress.

The idea of natural talent is a myth common to many areas of life. Creative writing is no exception. There are serious discussions about whether fiction writing can be taught. Some authors believe literature emerges by spontaneous genius and teaching will make students emulate others at the expense of their own voice.

No one can give someone a voice if they have nothing to say. But, more typically, beginning writers struggle because they don’t know basic technique. Story construction. Scene construction. Sentence construction. Paragraph construction. How to construct convincing dialogue (tip: take a tape recorder on the bus). They also don’t know the idiosyncrasies of their chosen genre, whether it be literary fiction, women’s fiction or romance. They discover through brutal trial-and-error, familiarity and socialisation what editors and competition judges will accept, and what readers want to read.

Ten thousand hours of practice is a lot of books and stories read. Many short stories and novels written and rejected. Long evenings spent in workshops and critique groups hearing how to make work suck less.  Thousands of hours spent alone in front of a keyboard. Writing. Editing. Tearing up the thing you just wrote. Rewriting it again.

Does that sound harsh? Maybe. Perhaps you’re reading this thinking “I don’t need to do that. My friends think my work’s great. My first novel is a work of misunderstood genius”. If that’s the case, you’re on the starting blocks my friend. Ahead is one of the biggest causes of writer’s block out there. It’s called the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect is named after two social psychologists who discovered in 1999 an interesting fact about human behaviour. As shown in the graph below, people’s assessment of their own skill doesn’t rise in line with increasing experience. Geniuses know they’re geniuses. Partially-trained people can tell they suck.

Unskilled people don’t know they suck. They’re too incompetent to accurately judge their own performance. Say you woke this morning and thought “Hmmmm, I want to be a best-selling novelist like Dan Brown. Or maybe I want to write the Great American Novel” and hadn’t written a work of fiction longer than your last tax self-assessment. According to the Dunning-Kruger Effect, you can’t know your novel is rubbish because you don’t know enough about novel writing. In fact, you’re likely to think you’re the next J.K. Rowling or James Joyce, and publishers are ignoramuses.

We all know the stereotype of the unpublished novelist who believes their diabolical work is amazing and won’t listen to criticism. The real trouble comes when a humble unskilled writer embarks on ten thousand hours of deliberate practice. They march along the Dunning-Kruger curve, improving their performance. Hopeful. Joyful. Certain of imminent publication. Oblivious of the length of the road ahead. At some point or another, they realise “I suck. Everything I’ve written sucks. And I didn’t know.” Instant writer’s block. How do you continue writing when you know you suck? What’s the point? You’re only going to delete it anyway. Trouble is, you must practise writing rubbish so you can eventually rise swan-like from the bottom of the Dunning-Kruger curve.

Lesson learned? Embrace your knowledge that your writing sucks.  It means that you’re learning something. Carry on practising, improving, working on your weak points, putting your work out there. Learn from informed criticism and rejection. Suck. Fail. Learn. Suck less. Fail better.

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3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Yolanda Christian
    Aug 15, 2013 @ 13:54:49

    Really enjoyed reading this. As for me, well I absolutely expect my writing to be really bad. I see like a carving. it needs to be chipped away more and more until you get to the truth. Also, the gestation period appears to be crucial to eradicate more self-delusion. I positively enjoy the whole process.

    Reply

  2. darkocean
    Aug 02, 2014 @ 17:55:15

    Perfect. Just perfect. I’m a member of wattpad, and I know my book sucks! However many other armature anthers on there think that their books are the greatest works of art the wold has ever seen!

    Oh, they don’t go out and say or act like that mind you but what they do speaks volumes. Like this one armature author. I went and read her book, it’s not bad but filled with such mistakes like word repetition (one of her characters is called crystal and she starts almost every paragraph with: “Crystal bla bla bla. ”

    her dialog tags are always at the end of any dialog written, lack of transition words .. the list goes on. And she has her book up in amazon. Yay. Some how shes gotten 6k readers to that book. /facepalm

    The only reason I can see that its bad is that I’ve been studding, researching and trying to learn to make my sucky book suck less and am slowly editing every chapter to fix this puke worth problems.

    What makes it worse is that on the end of every chapter is a plug for her ebook, give me the feeling that she thinks that it is wonderful and finished. It is neater. I’m so glad I’m a realist it must suck living in denial land. :/

    Please i implore you, you know how to write well I’m assuming? Get a how to write a book guide in the mainstream, get that SOB on the top sellers list. Maybe then people thinking of self publishing will think twice. And then actually edit their book and realize that its not finished that it is only in the infant stage.

    Looking for kind critics to point out flaws in my book (also point out anything I’m doing right so I don’t end up deleting it.) Being harsh is fine just don’t be rude thank you.

    Reply

  3. darkocean
    Aug 02, 2014 @ 17:56:49

    Oh that was bad my apologies for those typos! I thought I caught them all.

    Reply

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