How Do You Know What You Don’t Know?


Lizzy walked into the pub. “Susan?” she called out excitedly. “Susan?” she added, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear and then readjusting the hat on her head. There was no response. Susan could see her but after what had happened yesterday she wasn’t interested in answering her. Lizzy knew this but she was in denial. Instead she watched as Lizzy cocked her head and peered into the murky darkness of the room, the blinds keeping the sun out like a unicorn’s wings pierces the air. “SUSAN! WHERE ARE YOU? I NEED TO TALK TO YOU!” Lizzy exclaimed angrily. “Now!” she added. “Sue?” she added to that, hopefully with a hint of impatience. She folded back the cuffs of her Burberry oatmeal-colored three-quarter length mac and pulled off her Hermes gloves and shook the snow flakes from her Nine West boots. Then she caught sight of herself in the mirror in front of her. Wow. She thought, smugly. “I love how good my long brown hair goes with my blue eyes.” Peter looked up then, seeing Susan ignoring Lizzy who was looking for her. He stood up suddenly and put his hands in his pockets. “This ISN’T what I signed up for!” he shouted heatedly. “And Susan,” he added, pointing with aplomb to the woman seated next to him across the room from Susan if she were looking at it reflected in the mirror. “Lizzy is looking for YOU!!!?!”


That is only a slight dramatization of a scene in a self-published novel I read (bits of) recently. 

Five minutes of my life I’ll never get back. And a paragraph of words that will never quite make sense.

You and I can look at that and instantly see what’s wrong. (Clue: all of it.) We’ve been constantly reading books since we figured out how, perhaps we’ve been given some writing talent to start with by the universe and maybe on top of that we’ve spent months or years putting two and two together to improve our craft. So we know the paragraph above is Grade A Self-Published Poop, now with Extra Stinky, and doesn’t bear any resemblance to any good book we’ve ever read.  

But the writer who self-published that book, presumably, didn’t set out to make a fool of themselves. They didn’t intentionally self-publish extra stinky poop. The very fact that they self-published suggests that they thought this book was good, and that they thought the discerning reader would be happy to shell out some of their hard-earned cash in exchange for the experience of reading it. (Let me also just say that this book was priced much higher than 99c.) The writer thought this because the writer didn’t – doesn’t, presumably – know that they can’t write very well, or at all. They don’t know how to write well, and they don’t know that they don’t know how to write well. But then, how can anyone know what they don’t know?

Since I first self-published, I’ve found out plenty that I didn’t know I didn’t know. For instance:

  • Sarah, who edited Mousetrapped and Backpacked, taught me how to use a whole new world of fancy grammar (I’m looking at you, semi-colon) that I was too scared of using before, and also pointed out plenty of American English words (like “someplace”) that I’d thrown, unknowingly, into my British English book
  • Averill, who proofread Results Not Typical, pointed out that when you’re writing a character’s thoughts, it’s EITHER italics or “she thought”, as in it’s either I don’t think so, Emma thought OR I don’t think so. I had always put all thoughts in italics
  • Joel of The Book Designer offered me some very welcome advice about my paperback’s interiors, including that if a page is blank, is should be completely blank, i.e. no page numbers, no running headers, etc. I didn’t know that and I didn’t know that I didn’t know that. But he did, because he’s a professional book designer. 

Speaking of The Book Designer, Joel has started an e-book cover design award and even though he’s too nice to say so, some of the covers submitted could be brought up for grievous visual harm. In fairness, what the submissions have shown above all is that a fantastic standard of e-book cover design is emerging from all this self-pubbing, but there were a few in there that would only convince you not to buy the book they were on. But it was a competition, and the submitters knew their covers would be showcased on the site. So they hardly thought their covers were bad. On the contrary, they must have thought they were good. They thought they were so good that they could compete with professional cover designs. Why? Because they know nothing about covers or, perhaps, even books. But they don’t know that they don’t know.

Nobody really knows what they don’t know and having a little bit of knowledge in a subject – for instance, being a writer who has read lots of books – only clouds your view even more.

And this is why you can’t self-publish alone. You have to get professional feedback to find out if your book is good, because you can’t tell and if you have an opinion… well, it’s just your opinion and something tells me you might be a tad biased. You have to get professional editing and proofreading services because what they do is not typo-hunting and spell-checking – it’s finding the mistakes and misuse of language and muddled thoughts that you don’t even know are there. If you wouldn’t recognize what you’re looking for, how can you expect to find it? And you need to get help with your cover design, because self-publishers get all misty-eyed when they see their book – “My book!” – and flip the switch in their brain that would otherwise alert them to the fact that it looks nothing like anyone else’s book, now or ever.

So while I don’t blame our adverb-loving, POV-straying, formatting-abusing friend from the beginning of this post for not knowing that he can’t write, I do blame him for putting that kind of crap out into the world and worst still, charging people for it. Because the first thing he should’ve done after typing “The End” (although it was probably “THE End!!%!”, knowing him) is employed the services of people who do know what our aspiring writer friend doesn’t know he doesn’t know, and will gladly tell him for a reasonable fee.

This is why self-publishing cannot be a one warm body and a coffee machine job. You need professional input. You need a team.

Why? Because you don’t know what you don’t know. But they do

19 thoughts on “How Do You Know What You Don’t Know?

  1. Peter Newman says:

    I agree up to a point. Most of us mere mortals do need a small army of help to make our books good enough and I hope most writers would agree that they are often too close to the writing to have any perspective on it.

    But do you need *professional* feedback to tell you the book is good? Isn’t this one industry where its as much about numbers as it is meeting the standards of critics. There are often books that are critically crushed but publicly loved (though that might be a secret love 🙂 ).

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      You absolutely DO need professional feedback. I’m not sure quite what you mean about numbers versus critics – do you mean it’s more important to get readers than awards? Because I agree with you there 100%. But critics have nothing to do with professional feedback. I would either submit my book to agents, editors, etc. to see what they say or hire a manuscript critique service. At the very least your book is going to be vastly improved. My point is, someone who is an expert or at least has many years of experience in publishing has to tell you your book has merit. Regardless of what the self-publishing evangelists would have you believe, they *are* the experts. If they only published bad books, publishing would have imploded many many years ago. You thinking it has merit doesn’t count – of course we all think our books have merit!

      And you refer to books being critically crushed but publicly loved. Like The Da Vinci Code? Like the Twilight books? Like the Stieg Larsson books? Well regardless of what the critics thought, someone in a professional industry role agreed they had merit – the commissioning editor who bought and published them.

  2. Deb says:

    Love it. But I’m also going to add, I think, beta readers in your genre- experts of a different sort.

    And “yep” is totally an Americanism, guys- and so is “guys” 🙂

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      Well as I said it is a *slight* exaggeration but it’s not this kind of crap that’s the problem – it’s the less obvious crap, if you know what I mean. It’s really easy to look at that and see that it’s poop but if all the full stops are in the right places, etc. it might be harder to see that it needs work. Still, the actual book wasn’t that far off – which is scary!

  3. C. says:

    I thank Joel for many, many tips on interior book design. Including the ‘no numbers on blank pages.’ So helpful.

  4. lucindasutherland says:

    Wow, very interesting – and educational. I can see I will have to save up my pennies for this self-publication stuff while I continue writing and blogging. Good thing I wasn’t expecting to strike it rich with my books by the end of next month.

  5. Judy Millar says:

    Agree it needs to be professionally proofed … but does it really matter if it’s someplace or somewhere? Doesn’t ePublishing blur the borders? Someplace works for me as a Canadian, and I’ve bought two of your books.

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      It may blur the borders of who is purchasing the books, but the language still needs to be correct (as I’ve discovered) and correct stretches to maintaining British English or American English throughout.

  6. ditzydelusions says:

    Love is blind Catherine:) and there’s no love greater than that of a writer and a rubbish manuscript… a saga to span the ages

  7. Arthur - Nony Traveler says:

    Hi Catherine.
    Hugely informative and entertaining.
    You will undoubtedly be thrilled to know Donald Rumsfeld (former US Secretary of Defence) agrees with you. His most memorable quote of the Iraq War:

    “……as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.”

    Love your work

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