Do you write as well as you think you do? How the Dunning-Kruger Effect undermines good writing


Posted March 28, 2018

You may not be as effective a writer as you think.
Research finds a real disconnect between how well respondents think they write versus everyone else. Specifically, the 2016 State of Business Writing report found that respondents rated the effectiveness of the materials they write nearly 2.5 points higher (on a scale of 1 to 10) than the effectiveness of the material they read (6.9 points versus 5.4). Similarly, two-thirds of respondents (67%) agreed that “I make a strong positive impression on others with my writing,” but 81% complained of wasted time from poorly written materials. In other words, respondents measured their own writing as being superior across the board, versus the writing they read.
Something is off in these numbers. Someone is not writing as effectively as they think they are. Could it be you?
In fact, overestimating one’s own abilities is common, due to a psychological bias called the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Under this effect, people suffer from illusory superiority, believing their abilities to be greater than they really are. Why? Perhaps the ability to self-assess accurately is part of being competent; in other words, writers who are not competent in the craft cannot accurately evaluate their own writing. Another theory is that people of low ability fail to comprehend an activity’s actual standards of performance.
Fortunately, it’s possible to offset the Dunning-Kruger Effect when editing.
Start with effective writing feedback. "It's surprising how often feedback is nonexistent or ambiguous," social psychologist David Dunning asserts. He argues that people can develop blind spots when they don’t realize that they need to improve. "A little pointed feedback might be the exact motivator people need to work on their shortcomings.”
Many organizations misunderstand the role of feedback in the editorial process, so this is an area ripe for improvement. Fortunately, we have a class for that!
Then, once the blind spot has been exposed, correct the situation. For something like writing, the solution is straightforward. Talent can help a writer, but writing is ultimately a skills-based activity, so training and practice can make a tangible difference.
Indeed, these solutions – providing both more feedback and more training – dovetail perfectly with the findings from the State of Business Writing report, whose respondents also reported serious inadequacies in both writing education and feedback. Specifically, only 38% reported that they got the right writing training in school, and only 32% agreed that their organization’s feedback and editorial process works well.
Thankfully, it’s easier than ever to fix these issues.