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.

Easy Fixes: PPP

Misuse of present participle phrases (PPP) may be the most common beginner writer problem that we see in our critiques. They can make your writing seem amateur at best, or at worst, nonsensical. To become skilled writers, we must understand what PPPs are, when to use them, and how to use them.

What is a present participle phrase?

A present participle phrase is, essentially, when a phrase is tacked on to a core sentence, and that phrase contains the present participle form of a verb (usually a verb ending with “-ing”). Example:

Pablo smelled the roses, savoring the scent.

The first part before the comma is the core sentence: subject (Pablo) does verb (smelled) to an object (the roses).

The second part is the present participle phrase: verb-ing (savoring) the object (the scent).

The key thing to understand about a present participle phrase: when we use one, it means the two linked events (smelling and savoring) are happening at the exact same time.

In Pablo’s case, we have no problem. We can smell flowers and savor them at the same time. It’s a good use of the present participle.

Some examples

Here’s a misused present participle phrase:

Granny Millicent heard glass break in the living room, dropping her glass of milk.

This may seem okay on the surface since these two things could happen simultaneously. The first problem is that the participle verb (dropping) is very far away from the noun it modifies (Millicent). This is called a “dangling” or “misplaced” modifier.  The second problem is that it feels amateurish because the cause (window breaking) should come before the effect (dropping milk). Let’s fix it:

Granny Millicent heard glass break in the living room and dropped her milk.
…or…
Glass broke in the living room and Granny Millicent dropped her milk.

How about this one?

Millicent rummaged through the kitchen drawer for her revolver, fumbling with the ammo as she loaded it.

This has a clear cause-and-effect issue: she can’t simultaneously rummage for the gun and load it. How can she load it if she hasn’t found it yet? It’s also a bit bland because it summarizes instead of dramatizes. Let’s fix it:

Millicent rummaged through the kitchen drawer for her revolver. Her hand touched cold steel. She found the ammo box and began to load it, fumbling with the bullets as someone began to pound on her front door.

That’s better. Note that in the second sentence, we have three things happening simultaneously (loading, fumbling, pounding on the door) but we have correctly used the present participle phrases to communicate to the reader what is happening and in what chronological order.

Let’s try another one:

Running into the living room, Granny Millicent shot the intruder dead, sweating profusely as she did so.

Here we have another misused present participle phrase and some pretty amateurish writing (the two tend to go hand in hand). I have a hard time picturing a sweating granny shooting someone dead while she’s running through the house. Three things are happening at once, and it seems a bit silly. Let’s take another shot at it:

Granny Millicent lifted the revolver with both hands. Her arms shook from the weight of it as she stepped softly through the kitchen in her bunny slippers. Her hair curlers were soaked in sweat and sliding down her neck. The first shot had to kill—there was no way she’d be able to hold her grip on the pistol after it fired. The front door opened and she squeezed the trigger.

Now that’s better. We fixed the participle phrase problem, we’re showing the action instead of telling it, and we got rid of that cliche “sweating profusely” and that unnecessary filler “as she did so”. Note that the order of events is clear and logical, even though we used participle phrases.

In general, overuse of the present participles (-ing) verbs is a hallmark of amateur writing, and many editors will scrub them out of your manuscripts, sometimes to the point of removing them entirely. If you learn how to use them correctly, you can save them for when you actually need them: when two things happen at exactly the same time.

Click here for more examples.