Thursday, November 24, 2011

Editing Ability, Muphry's Law, and the Overconfidence Effect

Okay, for two weeks now, I've been addressing self-editing. First, I asked "Is Self-Editing Unprofessional?"; then I asked "Must Writers Be Professional?".

I admit that I hadn't heard of Muphry's [sic] Law before I went searching on Wikipedia for the name of the concept I'm actually wanting to bring up, but this one also works.

Muphry's Law
"if you write anything criticizing editing or proofreading, there will be a fault of some kind in what you have written"
Source: Wikipedia

Nobody's perfect. For everything, there's a point where you have to say "It's good enough" and let it go.

But is that thing actually good enough for general consumption?

I noticed something, even as a teenager when I was hanging out on fan fiction sites (…and learning how to balance critique with praise).

As a general rule, the more confident someone was about her writing, the more her writing sucked. (Saying "her" because so many fanfic writers are female.)

The less confident someone was about her writing, the better it tended to be—until it plateaued at a point where someone was fairly confident that they could put a sentence together without being convinced that "My writing is the bestest thing evah!" Those coolheaded ones were the fantastic ones, mind you, but they didn't realize that or even believe it of themselves.

The tendency to overstate your ability in a subject has actually been researched. I thought there was some "law" about it, but what I'm finding is the term "overconfidence effect."

Overconfidence Effect
The less you know about a subject, the less you assume there is to know, and the more you overestimate your knowledge of that subject
Source: Wikipedia

So let's try a quick quiz to test if you might be able to self-edit your own work. Answer honestly, now.

  1. You know everything there is to know, everything you need to know, and everything you should know about editing.
  2. You know a little, but you know that there are many things still need to learn.
  3. You know some, but you're not sure you know everything you should.
  4. You know a fair bit, though you're sure you don't know everything.
  5. You know a lot. You're sure it isn't everything, but you know where to look things up.

Now let's rate your score:

  • If you answered 1: forget it. You have a long way to go before being able to edit your own work—and event that can't start until you have an attitude change.
  • If you answered 2: keep heart. You have a way to go, but you're on the right track!
  • If you answered 3: keep at it. You're getting there…
  • If you answered 4: try it out. You might be ready; at any rate, practice will do you the most good, now.
  • If you answered 5: get to it. You're a good candidate for self-editing; at worst, you'll clean up your strong points to make it easier for someone else to identify your weak points.

I'm not going to gracefully bow out of this one. I'm an editor for my "day job", so of course I consider myself a 5. But in my own writing, my weakest points are transitions and plotting. I brain functions in odd, transition-less ways that loses folks who know me well, so I have to focus to make sure I connect the dots. I can also produce individual characters, situations, and scenes that make a pre-reader plea for more, but stringing them together into a plot? That's harder for me. (That's part of why I have so many WiPs—some are only characters and situations, right now; no plots.)

Even in day-to-day life, I have a tendency to think too hard. That's part of why I've been making myself write so many short stories; they're making me focus on Ockham's Razor, to produce plots that fit in about 3k words.

Might you be an exception to the above rules of thumb? Possibly. But I can't think of one exception that I've ever encountered in more than 5 years of working professionally—if you count my time as a hobbyist, we're entering two-digit territory—so forgive me for being dubious.

Now that you have some idea of if you're a good candidate for self-editing or not, this series will continue, addressing issues like the different types of editing and tricks to help yourself see what's actually on the page instead of what you thought you wrote.

How'd you score on the quiz? What are your thoughts on Muphry's Law and the Overconfidence Effect?


Happy Thanksgiving, fellow USians!

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