Seeing a hundred colours
Cup of tea? I'll get going in a minute, I really will.

Learning to be bad

Any slush-pile reader or writing tutor knows that the truly bad writers are the ones who least know it. So I was interested to read this post on How Publishing Really Works, which led me to this paper, which describes a study of how the competence of a sample of students matched (or didn't) their own perception of how well they did at various tasks, and, separately, how they ranked themselves in general among their peers doing that task.

Like all the best studies of how humans work, it makes so much sense that one's tempted to sigh at the way the social sciences love to state the obvious. Only that wouldn't be fair because anyone involved in helping beginners in any craft needs to know this stuff. Roughly speaking (and I'm not qualified to disentangle the methodological details) the students whose competence at the tasks was in the bottom quartile of the group consistently thought they'd done pretty well at the tasks, and also thought that they ranked in the upper range among the group. The students in the top quartile for competence usually ranked themselves pretty accurately for the tasks and their position in the group, or if anything slightly below where they actually were.

What's really interesting is that when half the students were taught how to do the tasks better everyone - competent and incompetent - got better not only at the tasks, but at knowing how well (or badly) they were doing them, and how good they were (or weren't) relative to everyone else. The competent got a stronger sense of just how much they could do: secure in their understanding of something, until then they'd had little idea of just how opaque it might be to others. The incompetent realised just how much they couldn't do. And the control group of students who weren't taught to do the tasks better stayed much as they were.

To the soft-hearted the idea of teaching someone how bad they are seems a bit brutal, but of course it's an ineluctible stage. I've lost count of the aspiring writers who've described writing their first novel as one mad, joyful rush. It's wonderful, it's theirs, and having people not get it, or not like it, or reject it, is a visceral shock, however constructive their comments are about why. So then the determined writer reads a how-to-write book, joins a class or a writers' circle or an online forum, and starts to discover what they don't know. As I was discussing in The ugly duckling and the liferaft, the most insecure seize the first things they learn like a liferaft and cling to them as rules forever, but just about everyone goes through the ugly duckling stage with novel number Two (or the big re-write of One), while they struggle to integrate new theory and old practice into a new practice. Eventually they do: they become a better writer.

There seem to me to be several implications of this. First, that our own frequent, deep gloom about how feeble our work is (as opposed to practical assessements that this chapter isn't as good as it could and should be) is actually an index of how much we do know about our craft. And the conviction of many excellent writers that they're not that good really isn't necessarily false modesty (though such is the don't-show-off culture of the British that it may well be) but is honestly held. Their understanding of their craft is wide, deep and complex enough that they're painfully aware of the parts of it they don't do well or don't try at all, even though no one writer will or can do every kind of writing that might be thought to be 'good'.

Two, since many writers end up formally or informally passing on their craft, how do you help the incompetent (which may only mean beginners) towards and through the stage where their own incompetence is revealed to them? All good craft needs confidence as well as competence, and there are many aspiring writers whose confidence never recovers from too brutal and unconstructive a revelation of just how bad they are at the moment. That's where the kind of comment is so crucial, and needs such careful judgement.

The last implication is just as salutary, but it's for us teachers. By definition, in our subject, we're operating in that top quartile. Probably, in that subject, we always have. It can be very, very hard to understand what it feels like not to be able to see something which is so obvious to us. Of course much of the skill of teaching is to do exactly that, but one of the things that frustrates aspiring writers is that in the end, we can't really tell them how to do it. All we can do is show them how it's often done, and hope that in measuring the gap between the two, they can teach themselves how to jump it.

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