A few weeks ago at church, the minister talked about something called the “Dunning-Kruger Effect.”
This concept, defined by psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger, describes the cognitive bias of inexperience that causes people who know almost nothing about a topic think they are experts because they don’t know enough to realize the extent of their ignorance.
If you’ve ever critiqued a manuscript for a beginning writer, you know exactly what this is. The newbie will bring you her precious creation and hand it over, dewy-eyed with confidence that the next day (because it’s so good you’ll stay up all night reading it), you’ll call to tell her that she is the next J.K. Rowling/Nora Roberts/E.L. James/Gillian Flynn.
A couple of days later, you crack open the manuscript and it’s terrible. The characters are inconsistent, the point-of-view hops from head to head, the dialogue sounds like kindergartners (or rocket scientists) chatting over Play-Doh, and the plot is nowhere to be found.
It is, in fact, a very typical first attempt at writing a novel. It’s where most (though not all) of us start our writing careers.
So now you have the painful task of giving Ms. Newbie that little shove off the “I ROCK” platform and down the precipitous slope of reality to a more realistic view of what she still has to learn.
It is a slide every novice has to take if she wants to get better, but there’s a good portion of would-be writers whose egos aren’t tough enough to survive that free-fall. And no one wants to be the meanie who turned a budding Ernestina Hemingway into an embittered lush who drinks because a hater destroyed her dreams.
So how do you help a new writer make that first step down without bottoming out?
To be honest, my usual approach is to decline giving feedback to beginners. I’m pretty tough even on experienced writers, which means I’m not the ideal mentor for the green-as-grass newbie.
On the occasions when I can’t avoid the task, I look for things the author is doing well–an interesting character, a catchy turn-of-phrase, an intriguing premise. And I try to ask questions to help the writer see where she’s maybe not coming across as clearly as she thinks. And I try to remember that no one learns to write in a day, or even in a single book, so there’s no need to point out every problem I see.
How do you handle working with newbies?