In 1995, American McArthur Wheeler was arrested in Pittsburgh after brazenly robbing two local banks. Police were quick to apprehend the culprit after identifying him from surveillance footage — after all, he wasn't wearing a mask — but when interviewed, Wheeler couldn't believe he had been caught. He had, he thought, been practically invisible. How? Lemon juice.


While the juice of lemons has long been known as a low-tech invisible ink, Wheeler was certainly the first to apply it as personal camouflage. Undaunted by the lack of precedent, and confident in his knowledge of organic chemistry, he had smeared his face with lemony goodness and set out to commit mayhem. While he doubtless smelled like a freshly cleaned toilet, much to his consternation, he did not become invisible.

When David Dunning and Justin Kruger of the Cornell University Department of Psychology heard about Wheeler’s case, they were amazed. How could Wheeler, even in the face of his own capture, continue to believe his lemon juice scheme should have worked? The Dunning-Kruger effect, named after the two researchers, would explain everything.

A common cognitive bias, the Dunning-Kruger effect describes the inability of unskilled individuals to assess their own performance, leading to illusory superiority: people who are bad at something often can’t tell how bad they are. Conversely, skilled individuals tend to underestimate their performance: people who are good at something often assume it’s just as easy for everyone else. It shouldn't be hard to think of at least one person in your life who falls into either category.

What Dunning-Kruger has to do with you

The Dunning-Kruger effect is certainly interesting and amusing, but what does it have to do with writing? Everything. If you don’t expose yourself to good writing, if you don’t have your work critiqued, if you don’t strive to improve, you’re in danger of not noticing, or fixing, whatever mistakes you might be making.

Now, by no means am I calling any of you unskilled. And when I say mistakes, I don’t just mean typos and errant punctuation either. Many well-practised writers, myself included, can fall victim to poor style choices, structural oversights and clumsy expression almost as easily as novices. We just don’t expect to. While in my Writing Series posts I spoke at great length about the importance of writing with confidence, inversely, it’s just as important to write with humility. If you aren't trying to learn, you won’t. As David Dunning said himself: ‘if you’re incompetent, you can’t know you’re incompetent...the skills you need to produce a right answer are exactly the skills you need to recognise what a right answer is.’

So before you all get too worried that you’re secretly incompetent, do I have any advice to dispense? Well, yes, I do. But, of course, I might be incompetent as well.

Aside from practice, the best way I've found to improve at writing is reading someone else’s. Maybe it’s just how my head works, but I've always found it easier to analyse and critique someone else’s work than my own (big surprise there). In the words of Stephen King, ‘if you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.’ If we’re to escape the ignorance of Dunning-Kruger, expanding our notion of what is “good” writing and what is “bad” is our only option.

In a way, accepting that you know only as much as you do, and that there is always more to learn is a rather liberating experience. If you never think your writing is perfect, you’ll always have a way to get better.

So keep reading. Keep writing. Lifelong learning sure beats a face full of lemons.

Image: Lemons by DeSegura89 is licensed under CC BY 2.0
AuthorAlex Stevenson