Master Writers

What is a master writer?

The phrase “master writer” is shorthand for a writer who, through overconfidence, grossly overestimates their competence.

Master writers typically exhibit some or all of the following behaviors:

  • React negatively to critique, due to ego defense mechanisms (or don’t even seek it out)
  • Reject knowledge and are unwilling to learn new things (because they already know everything)
  • Are unwilling to edit their work before submitting it (because it’s already good)
  • Are unwilling to post their own work, or even write anything (because the ideas are so good that people will steal them)

These behaviors may be supported by the following beliefs:

  • They already know everything (or “everything that’s important”) about writing
  • There is an “end state” to writing knowledge, and that it’s not a continuous learning process
  • Their writing needs no improvement, and that people who don’t like it “don’t get it” or “can’t understand it”
  • Consequently, critique will be praise, not suggestions for improvement

We’ve seen dozens of these people come and go at our Discord-based chatroom for fiction writers, and those symptoms and beliefs above are taken from our experience.

Why do master writers exist?

Master writers exist due to overconfidence in the face of ignorance. This may be innate (from genetics) or learned (from parents, teachers, or culture). This phenomenon has been scientifically studied in pioneering research from psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger:

The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which people with low ability at a task overestimate their ability. It is related to the cognitive bias of illusory superiority and comes from the inability of people to recognize their lack of ability. Without the self-awareness of metacognition, people cannot objectively evaluate their competence or incompetence.

> from the Wikipedia entry for the Dunning–Kruger effect

Let’s take a closer look. Here is how a rational person associates confidence and competence:

This makes sense, right? As you learn from knowledge and experience, you gain skills, and therefore gain confidence.

The reality is that most of us go through a learning curve more like this:

How high that big peak is on the left depends a lot on your self-awareness and overconfidence. I think we’ve all been there with one thing or another. For example, my curve for open heart surgery is very flat: I know that I don’t know anything about that. On the other hand, my curve for fixing antique cameras might be more steep at the beginning: I’ve taken apart lots of things before, how hard can it be?

The key is to recognize this cognitive bias when you encounter it.

The problem with master writers is that they don’t.

Simply put, master writers are on the left, but they think they’re on the right.

Note that in this case, the orange line has no arrow at the end, because master writers often view skills as binary (you have it or your don’t) and not as continuous learning processes.

How do I deal with a master writer?

Master writers can make writing communities miserable places, whether in-person or online. You can find them in any community where you have an overconfident person with low competence.

There are two basic strategies: shun them or welcome them.

Shunning or banning master writers is the easiest approach. They typically make themselves known, and then you can kick them out. This avoids disruption and keeps your community healthy (one bad apple can indeed spoil a bunch).

The problem with this approach is that the master writer never gets off the top of the first peak of their learning graph, so they go to some other community and cause trouble there.

The second approach is to get them past the brick wall of ego defense and onto the path of enlightenment (via knowledge and experience). This may often end up as an exercise in futility, but when it works it is extremely rewarding (because you help another human being achieve their life goals).

How do you do it? You can take people aside, or you can call them out publicly. You can sugar coat, or you can be blunt. Private sugar-coating has the best chance for success, but it requires a lot of time and work for the critiquer. Blunt public feedback is the fastest, but has a low chance of success since it tends to only strengthen the brick wall of ego defense.

But either way, you need to be honest—lying to them won’t help anyone. Odds are about 90% that their ego defense will reject what you say, and they will leave your community or become argumentative and angry. But for the 10% who don’t, you are giving them one of the greatest gifts a writer can receive: self-awareness.

Why am I telling you all this? How do I know what I’m talking about?

Well, kind reader, I was once a master writer myself.

Thankfully, a kind soul took me aside and gave it to me straight. It was like a punch in the gonads, but after I’d languished in despair for a while, I realized that this person was right. So I began to study, and I learned a great deal about writing, but what I really learned was how much there was that I didn’t know.