Tuesday, March 13, 2012

A STWL FAVORITE: Where Do You Sit on the Writing Scale?

I wrote this post a little over a year ago and it's proven to be one of my most popular - and one I get a lot of queries about. I'm reposting to reignite the conversation, because I think it's a useful one to have...

My CV reads like a patchwork quilt of careers. (I'm told this is common in creative, right-brained types).  But buried among the list that includes Recruitment Consultant, Project Manager, Marketing and Government Assistant, is one job I ended up doing twice:  Trainer.

Turns out I'm good at teaching people how to do their jobs.

I tell you that, only because it's the context in which I was taught the following learning scale - and it's something you probably need to know.

It looks like this...

...and it's going to tell you how far you'll get as a writer:

UNCONSCIOUS INCOMPETENCE:  You Don't Know What You Don't Know

(Or, "As far as I know, I know everything!")

This is where every writer starts. Whether or not you're naturally gifted, the first time you embark on telling a story in words you're incompetent. Accept it.

Roadblock Attitude: "I know enough to do what I want to do... why should I put the effort into learning the craft?"

The entire point of "Unconscious Incompetence" is that you don't know what you don't know. And if you aren't willing to learn, you'll never know it. 

I'm beginning to see many writers never move beyond this point.  Unwilling to learn, they don't recognize they're just plain incompetent.  They never achieve, and never understand why.

CONSCIOUS INCOMPETENCE: You Know You Don't Know Enough

(Or "This is Harder Than I Thought!")

Conscious Incompetence is just that: the learner has learned enough to realize they're incompetent.

Roadblock Attitude: "Just because it's always been done that way, doesn't mean that's the way I should do it." 

1.  As a writer, you aren't only competing with yourself for success.  There are people out there who do this professionally already.  They've already been through the learning curve.  Their stuff is already 'great'.  When your talented-but-unrefined work goes up against theirs it always loses.  Learn the rules first, then you'll know how to break them.

2.  There's no doubt some people can learn 'on the job', but in the overall picture of your career it will take longer to succeed.  Consider the time used up front as your investment in your own future!

CONSCIOUS COMPETENCE:  You Know What to Do... But It's Work.

(Or "Why Is This Still Hard?")

My former agent once said writers who were just getting a grasp on the craft reminded her of one of those American Idol contestants. You know the ones: They listen to the judges, take the advice - and work so hard to get it right that everything comes out robotic.

Roadblock Attitude: I'll never be good at this.

Never fear, eventually what's in the head sifts down into the soul.  That's when American Idol contestants sing like canaries and writers paint pictures with words that leave people gasping.  It's because they've reached...

UNCONSCIOUS COMPETENCE:  Oh, That's Right - This Used to be Work.

(Or "What do you mean, that's amazing?")

The whole point of learning the craft, listening to those more experienced, and emulating those who've been successful is that one day it just happens... Without even thinking about it, you sit down to write a first draft and it comes out great.  (Or at least, a version of 'good' that is much, much closer to 'great' than most can achieve). 

There are no roadblocks, except those you raise for yourself, becuase you're there. You're good. And you don't even have to think about it.

That's why Stephen King can put out a book a year.  That's why Diana Gabaldon can cross-genres.   That's why I want to be like them:  Because I know if I'm patient and hard working... one day it won't be work anymore.


This:  Most aspiring authors are in the first two groups.  It's unavoidable.  I suspect there are certain things we can't learn until we're under contract and working with an editor. But if you imagine each of those boxes in a graded scale... well, you can also imagine where most of the 'aspiring' are sitting when they turn into 'author'. 

Just some food for thought.

Your Turn: Where do you think you sit on the scale?  Are you doing anything to move further along?


  1. Oh I LOVE this article! It was extremely enlightening for me. I'm an aspiring author and after reading this I realize I'm in the Unconscious Incompetence group. I've known I should invest some time into learning to write better, but I kept shrugging it off. Well... no more. It's time to get serious about writing if I'm going to be serious about writing. Thanks for the info!!

    1. Wow, you go!!! If you want to condense your learning time, Dwight Swain's "Techniques of the selling Writer" is the best place to start in my opinion. An oldie but a very, very comprehensive look at commercial fiction.

  2. Great Article. I retweeted it.
    Once I'm overwhelmed by how much I have to learn I know that I've made progress. Then I admit my ignorance and ask someone with more experience what helped them the most. With writing, that meant joining a critique group, and attending workshops, retreats and conventions.
    And of course, it's getting enough bad words on the page that we finally get to the good ones.

    1. Thanks for the RT and "Hear, hear!" on everything else. So true!