Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Cognitive Bias

Cognitive Bias is why we need critique partners, why we're so bad at judging the odds of being published and why people view self-publishing in such a negative light.

(A recent New Yorker article goes into this in some detail and is worth reading, if only to check yourself through the tests)

When it comes to writing, it shows itself in our inability to accurately assess our own work, ignoring flaws that others see immediately or thinking that it's a piece of rubbish when it is, in fact, fantastic.  If we have honest critique partners these flaws can be corrected, but only if we listen and evaluate their comments and suggestions.

The last two points are an 'anchoring bias'.  The theory behind this is that if asked to guess how tall the tallest Redwood tree is and are given the clues 'between 85 feet and 1000 feet, we use those as anchor points, subconsciously thinking they can't be too far out.  Equally, if we're told that only 1 in a 1000 submission in a slush pile are read, we see hopelessness.  By changing the anchor points in the question or the statement, you change the range of answers.

To change your view of the slush pile, first cosider that most of the works there are truly worthless, being badly laid out, have poor spelling, a cover letter that shows the writer's self importance or complete ignorance of publishing: sometimes all four.  If you have put any amount of effort into your work, you have automatically put yourself in the top 10% of the slush pile giving yourself an 1 in 100 chance and if you've followed the agent/publisher's guidelines, top 5%.

Self-publishing has the same problem.  While there are a lot of really terrible books being self-published, there are a lot of good ones too.  The problem, one that hasn't been overcome yet, is the old perception that self-publishing is for bad writers.  It's a bias that's changing in the electronic world, but slowly.

Now for the bad news:  The man who did a lot of research into this bias has been working on it for decades, is aware of the problem, but hasn't been able to change his own biases, which means we will always need critique parners.  The good news is that with the slush pile, if we adjust our anchor points we can get a more realistic view of it and by changing the anchor points in society we can change the view of self-publishing.  The former is adjusting our own views, the latter will take time, but the change has started.

Changing tack, I was a guest over at Charity Bradford's blog on Monday, where I wrote about Starfish Publishing and how it came about.

See you on Friday.


Nick Wilford said...

Interesting post. I don't think it will ever be possible to eliminate those biases in our own writing. Sometimes I think I'm rubbish, but most of the time I'm just clueless.

I'm about to take a dip in the CP pool for the first time and I'm nervous but excited. I'm not sure it's a bad thing. By going over others' work from an outside viewpoint, we might learn to apply that process to our own work to some extent.

Regarding self-publishing, I think the tide has turned massively just in the past year and I'm sure that will continue. Maybe it'll mean there'll be less competition in that slush pile, too!

Chloe said...

I almost abandoned my current project after the first draft because I was sure it was boring and too big for me. I made myself struggle through a second draft before giving to a few people to critique. I was amazed that - in amongst some helpful constructive criticism - the one comment that came out time and time again was that it was "gripping". I had lost all perspective.

Thanks for the slushpile encouragement. I tend to look at it as 1/1000 chance - I will try and be more positive from now on!

Martin Willoughby said...

Nick: Self-Publishing is gaining acceptance, providing it's done properly and not for vanity's sake.

Chloe: We are our own worst enemies when it comes to judging our work.

Milo James Fowler said...

Great guest post, Martin -- the mysteries are solved! And you're right about changing our perspective; we have to be open to criticism and believe our work has a real shot.

morris plains said...

You can't perfect such, lots of people would still critic.

Martin Willoughby said...

Milo: A healthy perspective will stand every writer in good stead at all times.

Anonymous said...

So true Martin. Often when you're so close to your own writing it's hard to see the wood for the trees.

Martin Willoughby said...

Freya: Or too hard to see the bananas for the trees. :)

The Vegetable Assassin said...

Interesting as always!

I have to say, in any situation where people submit written content - be it job applications, letters for information or complaint, or for writing work - I am constantly amazed by the level of illiteracy involved. We all make errors sometimes but when submitting anything for someone else's approval or to make an impression, you would think people would at least attempt to proof read or punctuate or use proper formalities, yet a giant proportion of the time, they do not. It's astounding really.

I haven't proofed this comment so you may all now laugh at any typos I made. Ha!

Martin Willoughby said...

Veg: It wouldn't surprise me in the least. I've seen some truly awful examples in my time. The worst was one ex-manager who typed his emails and sent them without thinking about spelling. We often had to go back to him to ask what he was on about. To top it all he was constantly on about efficiency.

defcon said...

I don't think self-publishing it all that bad. Frankly, I'd rather do that than be screwed over by a publisher--and there have been known cases of it, as Rusch points out:

But just because you self-pub, doesn't mean you can't have your stuff beta'ed. There's actually some self-published material that's far superior than what a publisher can produce. Because let's be honest: publishers go for what's "hot" rather than what's good. This is why we have all these Twilight knockoffs.

Dana said...

I know I judge my work harshly--I always have. In college, I was surprised to learn that people actually liked what I had written--that they saw some merit in it.

I don't have any CPs, but I can see the value in having them. What I think is bad might not be, and conversely, what I think is good could be very, very "not good." That perspective is important.

Martin Willoughby said...

Defcon: You're spot on.

Dana: It's worth having CPs, bit only if they're suitable for you and you're suitable for them.