Write it now, part 4: beware the death trap of illusory competence

So far in this series on the A-Z of writing, we’ve looked at why people write. Now we’re moving on to what it takes to be a writer – what does learning to write actually entail?

Wright_LeaningTowerAs I’ve mentioned before, writing is a skill like any other. The usual time it takes to master a skill is 10,000 hours. About 1,000,000 words, for a writer. Yeah, lots of zeroes – but as I said last time, it’s a passion. It’s going to be fun. The learning never stops. Not ever. If you think you’ve ‘learned’ how to write, guess again. True writers are always learning, even the experienced ones. I’ve been in the business for 30 years – and I make sure I push the edges all the time.

There is a four-stage psychological model for learning, invented by GTI employee Noel Birch, nearly half a century ago. A journey from ‘unconscious incompetence’ through ‘conscious incompetence’ to ‘conscious competence’ – and, finally, ‘unconscious competence’.

It makes a lot of sense, but to me it’s not an exact fit for writing; writing encompasses many skills, all separately learned, and the skills may be at different stages. Writers not only have to learn the ‘craft’ of writing, they also have to be skilled in the subject they are writing about. Writing also has a hidden pitfall right at the start – the ‘death trap of illusory competence’.

1. The death trap of illusory competence.
Some of the basics of writing – grammar, especially – are taught as life skills at school and often get extended in the workplace. Good stuff. But it’s not the whole skill writers need – a trap, later, for those wanting to go further. I’ve found people who have an interest and want to write about it, thinking they already know the writing part. Or they’ll decide to ‘become’ a novelist as a fun retirement activity.  ‘How hard can it be? I did High School English…right?’ Or they may think ‘I read a lot, therefore I know how to write’. To me, that’s like ‘I listen to Beethoven a lot, therefore I know how to play his piano concertos’- see what I mean?

The results are often awful – but the writer isn’t informed enough to know. In fact, they may well think they are very good. The technical name for this, I believe, is the ‘Dunning-Kruger’ effect.

I got my first writing gig when I was 18 – working for the university newspaper. Like most of my fellow students, I thought I knew what I was doing. So I thought. Actually? No, I didn’t.

2. Scrambling up from the pit of doom.
Some people plunge down that death trap and don’t even know it. But a lot of writers do escape – or even avoid it altogether. One of the tools for it is self-critique. There can be an epithany, or it can happen slowly; but one way or another, the writer realises how much they have to learn. And maybe gets frustrated. But  thinking your own writing is terrible is the first step to improvement. And a honed sense of self-critique is a sign of a potentially great writer.

I remember being at this point. There was a day when I made a specific decision. ‘My stuff’s no good. I’d better figure out how to get good.’

3. A view of the sunny uplands of writing joy.
After a while, the elements are there, but the author has to consciously think through them. (‘I need to add a metaphor here…done. Now I have to add an adjective. Done.’) The styling can be wooden, or the writing process itself very slow. Thing is, learning to write is a LOT more than simply knowing the techniques. The key to it is doing the hard yards – to applying those techniques, writing a lot – as in, every single day, even if it’s only for 15 minutes – and making them part of your soul.

4. Confident and competent writer.
This is the 10,000-hour, million word point. Suddenly all the skills become part of your soul; they become automatic. Usually this happens first with the mechanics of style. You think of an idea, and the words emerge. Your writing sings. That lets the author focus on content – and one day, hey presto, that all clicks together too. Writing becomes fast – and good at the same time.

5. ‘How did you know that?’
There is a further step that comes only from experience. Pride goeth before a fall. Do not think you have learned everything. You haven’t.The process of learning never stops. It can mean learning from someone else, or attending specialist courses-  but it also means being able to self-analyse, to figure out what’s needed. To discover – to move forward and to be abstract. The writer learns not to define self-worth by what they write, even while pouring emotion into the work.

So how do writers go down this road? Every individual journey is different. It’s also do-able and not daunting at all, if it’s approached step-wise. This series is designed to help you along the way, whatever stage your writing may be at.

But I’ll share one of the secrets now. Actually, it isn’t really a secret. It’s OK to make mistakes – providing you figure out how they happened and what to do about it. That’s how you learn things.

Actually, that’s true of everyday life.

Any thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013


8 thoughts on “Write it now, part 4: beware the death trap of illusory competence

  1. “But thinking your own writing is terrible is the first step to improvement. And a honed sense of self-critique is a sign of a potentially great writer.” So true. But I think that’s true for anyone who is serious about a profession, be it writing, acting, or whatever.

    At the NY13SCBWI Annual Conference last week, I was amazed when a Senior Editor at Harper Collins said that she saw an inverse self-esteem ratio with her best writers. The stellar authors she worked with always handed in a project saying, “I don’t think this is any good.” And then she would love the manuscript.

    1. I agree on all counts. The problem of ‘illusory competence’ strikes just about any skill or profession. True competence begets informed self-critique – and seems to get more intense the more experienced the individual gets. But that’s a good thing; self-awareness and true humility is such an important part of any skill or ability.

  2. I don’t think I should have read this, having JUST published! In fact, to be honest, I skimmed – and I NEVER skim your articles, but just WAY TOO SCARY TODAY!!!!

    1. There’s the Hitchikers’ Guide phrase… Don’t panic! The other side of the coin (which I haven’t got on to yet) is that at some point you have to take a deep breath and jump. There was an extract you’d put on your blog, which read very well – captured me, as a reader, straight away.

      Congrats on the release – good on you, and I hope all goes well for sales.

  3. All the writers I know doubt their ability. I know I do and didn’t share my work for years. Even when people give encouragement the doubts are still there. I wonder how close I am to the 1m words? Probably over 800,000 so a little way to go 🙂

    1. Every writer I know has it (including me). I guess in a way self-doubt could be called an essential tool, in that it triggers the critical faculty and becomes a learning device. The key thing, to my mind, is not to let that self-doubt become loss of confidence in one’s own abilities.

      That’s an impressive word count, by any measure!

      1. Thanks. My word count includes editing, but I was quite happy when I totalled it all up.

        I think it is a critical tool in the process. It forces us to continue to tinker, hone and polish until we’re happy with it for fears of doubting its worth.

        A good way to think about it 🙂

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