My Neighbor is a Terrible Writer, but thinks he's AMAZING

Published about 1 month ago • 4 min read

Hi Bookfoxers,

I'm continuing to answer readers' questions, this time from someone who will stay anonymous, in case their neighbor reads this newsletter as well:

Despite holding an MFA from a prestigious university and a recent acceptance for traditional publication for my second novel, I still have what is referred to as "imposter syndrome."

I knew it was present, perhaps beneath the surface, but what drove it home was when a neighbor asked me to review his manuscript. He planned on submitting his masterpiece to agents because he was confident it would be snatched up by one of the top five publishers. I have been practicing and studying the art of writing for the past 16 years, and I don't have that confidence. After proofreading and editing 85 of the 295 abysmal pages, I rewrote the first 2 chapters to demonstrate how to format and how to write. Now, I have the unhappy task of passing along my edits.

So why do you think some of us have imposter syndrome even though we are armed with credentials and others have loads of confidence when they have no clue what they are doing?

You might have heard of the Dunning-Kruger effect. In 1999, Dunning and Kruger did a study in which they discovered people with low abilities overestimated their talent.

In the case of your neighbor's writing, he doesn't know what he doesn't know.

  • Perhaps he's an optimistic guy and doesn't realize that agents are picking 1 book out of every 1000.
  • Perhaps he's had success in another career and that's trained him to expect success right away in writing.
  • Perhaps he doesn't read very many books and doesn't realize his competition.

You, on the other hand, have a sweeping vision of the writing world. You know the bare-knuckled fights it takes to find agents, to win the approval of a publishing house, to earn the attention of readers.

So you have more measured expectations.

What most people don't know about Dunning-Kruger is that there was an additional study that found the inverse truth: people with high abilities often underestimate their skills.

Sounds pretty similar to imposter syndrome, doesn't it?

You said that you don't have the confidence to submit to one of the big five publishers: why not?

It might be that your book simply isn't right for the big five. I read books all the time that are perfect for small or niche publishers -- and that's not a knock against their quality, it's more a statement about their marketability.

But you've been writing for 16 years. You've published two books. You should feel confident enough at least to put yourself out there (under the advisement of an agent, perhaps).

It might help to look at the possible root causes of your imposter syndrome:

  • Seared by Inexperience: Sometimes a spate of rejections at the beginning of a writer's career can permanently harm their self-esteem, even after success arrives. It's important to tell yourself that you are your current abilities, not who you were ten or twenty years ago.
  • Imposter by Nature: Does your imposter syndrome extend to other fields, or is it only specific to writing? If it exists elsewhere, then the issue really isn't writing, it's the universal way that you think about yourself.
  • Stop the Comparisons: Imposter syndrome can come from comparisons. If you're constantly looking at more successful authors, you will always feel unworthy and unsuccessful. Either stop comparing yourself, or compare downward, focusing on all the authors who can't get a book published (there are millions).
  • External Pressures: Imposter syndrome doesn't always come from inside. Sometimes, it's subtly reinforced by those around you. I've written in this newsletter about a woman who'd traditionally published six books and still her husband didn't consider her an author. Don't let the judgments of those close to you cloud your perception of yourself.

Now, I have some advice about how you're editing/rewriting your neighbor's book, but first, a word from our sponsor:

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Now let's talk about the editing itself. I would caution you to make sure the way you're editing is what he's expecting.

For instance, you said he wanted you to "review" his manuscript. This could mean all sorts of things.

It could be he wanted a pat on the back and a few compliments.

He might not want to hear a single critical word.

If he has such a high view of his own abilities, all your hard work will be wasted -- he'll discard it all, thinking he knows better.

Unsolicited advice (or even solicited advice with different expectations) has a way of falling on deaf ears.

Rewriting the first two chapters of someone's manuscript might be helpful -- or it might make your neighbor angry or defensive. After all, rewriting seems to go far beyond a "review."

It might be helpful to ask him: what type of feedback were you expecting?

  1. An overview?
  2. Line edits?
  3. A rewrite?

I would say it's highly unlikely he'll say #3.

In which case ... you should throw away those rewrites (or ask if he wants to see them).

Maybe the best thing you can do is to try to gently temper his expectations ... and let literary agents and publishers burst his optimistic bubble.

And this advice holds true for every writer giving feedback.

Make sure to ask what type of advice they're looking for. Otherwise, all your hard work might be wasted, and they'll just end up disliking you.

Writing away,

John Matthew Fox

PS. Hit reply and let me know if you enjoy these reader questions, or whether you prefer more straightforward craft advice!


John Matthew Fox helps authors write better fiction. He is the founder of Bookfox, where he creates online courses for writers, provides editing and offers publishing assistance. He is the author of "The Linchpin Writer: Crafting Your Novel's Key Moments" and “I Will Shout Your Name,” a collection of short stories.

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