Writers and conscious incompetence

[Well, turns out Thursday’s post is going out on Thursday. Who’d’ve thought?]

Last post about conscious incompetence for a while. Promise!

So far in discussing the emotional journey of learning a skill (with reference to dating advice) I have mentioned various skills such as playing guitar, driving a car or literacy. What I haven’t talked about, which may seem odd for a blog that identifies Yours Truly as a writer is writing as a creative endeavour (as opposed to the act of representing words as symbols on a page or screen).

What is the arc of that emotional journey through the skill? Have I bypassed “conscious incompetence” in the same way? Have I gone through the other phases of “unconscious incompetence”, “conscious competence” and “unconscious competence”? Has the journey been something completely different?

I’m going to start with a quote from Chris Brecheen’s “Fortune Cookie Wisdom for Writers“:

If you don’t believe that you will be a better writer from practice, ask most any writer what they think of the writing they did five years ago and watch their reaction. It is only a writer’s unconscionably massive, planetoid-sized ego that allows them to think that now they have truly reached the pinnacle of their ability and no further practice can be of use.

Dear God, this is true. Heck, even stuff I wrote two or three years can make me cringe now. And yet, at the time I was convinced it was total awesomeness squared. Just like I am now (and then I go back and read the first page that I wrote six months ago and think, “Ooh, better do a third draft before I show anyone else…”).

So let’s keep in mind “five years ago looks crap” and “planetoid-sized ego” from that as we delve into the writer’s learning of skills.

If you think of yourself as a writer, it is likely that ideas for stories have floated around your head for as long as you can remember. The trick is to get them onto the page (computer memory, whatever) in a way that communicates them most effectively and attractively to other people. A way that makes them enjoy reading your story. I have been writing since primary school, and still cherish the first time, aged about 9, I got a teacher’s remark “Great storyline!” scrawled at the bottom of a story (it was about a dragon and involved a village yule log, if I recall correctly). I haven’t really stopped writing since, but it is only relatively recently that I started taking a proper interest in learning the craft: that is, when I decided to identify as “a writer” instead of it being a hobby.

There are plenty of other resources out there for learning the craft. For instance, Jody Hedlund has a bunch of tips, and Live Write Thrive goes into detail on many topics. There are dozens of books available as well (I’m currently reading “Plot & Structure” by James Scott Bell and have at easy reach “Writing a Novel (And Getting Published)” by Nigel Watts, from a “Teach Yourself” range. Point being, I don’t need to go into the details here. Second point being, that there’s lots of stuff to learn and develop from when you go from being a hobby writer to taking it seriously.

If there is a point at which one can argue there is a transition from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence, then that would probably be it. You look at that range of books, the pages and pages of advice on the internet and wonder how you could ever get good if you have to know all that stuff just to be entry-level for publication (and believe me, there are people who tell you that you do).

I can’t talk for others, but what I have found is that you don’t need to learn all of that. Practice makes you a better writer, even if you don’t really know what or why you’re practising. Sometimes it will mean you practise bad habits (like, I used to think it was way cool to use a list of adverbs to create a rhythm but generally recognise now that it comes over as a bit naff, and I was foolish to encourage myself in that device). But you’ll also start to spot what does or doesn’t work (like, I eventually worked out that all those adverbs were naff). When you start taking it seriously and want to learn “proper” writing, and go looking for these tips, you may be surprised by how much you do know already. For instance, I was sure I used way too many adjectives when I read that the best writing is sparse in them. Then I went back and looked at something I had written a year ago and tried deleting as many adjectives as I could without destroying the sense of the story. There were surprisingly few I had to delete, and surprisingly few left in that were essential. I was better than I had believed. (It also in most cases made the prose better and easier to read, so the exercise demonstrated to me that the advice is worthwhile following). The other thing that this exercise did was show me that there was a new trick that I could do to make things better.

Remember how I said that you avoid “conscious incompetence” by focussing on the new thing you can do, rather than the wealth of stuff you can’t do yet? Same thing.

Writing is therefore a journey of realising not that you are incompetent, but only that you were incompetent. And feeling pretty awesome for being better than you were.

It is also a journey of being aware that you can be better. Unless you have a planetoid-sized ego.

The point to take from this is that writing can be a long slog, both in terms of actually getting to the end of a story (like, it took me 7 years to finish my first draft!) and in terms of getting good at it. But at any stage you can take a moment to look back at how far you’ve come and say, “I am that much better than I used to be.” That sounds like it ought to be subject matter for another post, but I need to finish this one first.

So I don’t believe writing ever involves a “conscious incompetence” phase. There are certainly times when the demonic voices of depression tell me that nothing I ever do is worth the breath I expended while I did it, and that my words are the worst pile of tripe ever to be committed to paper (or the computer screen) and so on. I believe most writers at some point or another have such doubts, but it isn’t the same as “conscious incompetence”, because in many cases it is doubting in spite of being competent.

Writers improve by keeping on writing, by absorbing the tips and techniques that others share, and generally getting on with it. Each step is “Wow, I have a new thing I can do, look how much better my WIP is!” so you feel better about where you are, not worse. Sure, you look back at what you did before as rubbish, but that was then and this is now.


About ValeryNorth

I overthink everything.
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