Writing isn’t an automatic skill…but you can learn

There are three things people usually imagine they are better at than they actually are.

My Adler Gabrielle 25 - on which I typed maybe a million words in the 1980s.
My Adler Gabrielle 25 – on which I typed maybe a million words in the 1980s.

One of them is driving. We all think we can out-drive The Stig…don’t we? Another is writing. The third? Er…well, anyway, today I’m going to look at the idea that because someone did high school English, they can write.

A lot of that flows from the western supposition that a writer’s skill set is defined by expertise in subject matter. The writing itself? It’s an assumed skill. That was certainly the case when I was studying history at university, where everything was taught about the subject – and nothing about how to express it (which is at least half the challenge).

The fact that writing, itself, is a learned skill – just as in-depth and hard to master as history, or any of the sciences – doesn’t often surface. But it is.

The thing is that high school writing skill fully equips most of us to get by in the ordinary world – to write those postcards, those letters or emails, or whatever. But it’s at the start of the skill scale for professional writers. It’s ‘unconsciously incompetent’ – the first level. The point where people don’t know what they don’t know.

That’s why so many imagine they’re better than they actually are. ‘I learned to write, so I can just do it’.

My wife ran into this when she did a course, a while back, on writing childrens’ books – presented by one of New Zealand’s top kids’ book writers. Most of the aspiring writers there had just retired and envisaged themselves ‘becoming writers’ as their retirement career. They were full of questions about contracts and what size of advance to ask for.

No no, the presenter insisted. First you have to learn how to write.

Ripple of shock through the room. Nobody had thought of that. They could write…couldn’t they? Actually…no.

These people, you see, were at that ‘unconscious incompetence’ stage.

There are three steps after that – ‘conscious incompetence’, where the writer gets a handle on what they have yet to learn, then ‘conscious competence’, where they’ve learned it but need to think through every step. Then – finally – ‘unconscious competence’, where the skills have become part of your soul.

The distance from start to finish is about 10,000 hours or one million words. There are no short cuts.

But it’s do-able, and the rewards are tremendous. Not financially (trust me!) but certainly in terms of satisfaction.

I think so, anyway. You?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014


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Nook coming soon.

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6 thoughts on “Writing isn’t an automatic skill…but you can learn

  1. Great post, Thanks. I think I’m sitting somewhere on the border of “conscious incompetence” and conscious competence” if that’s possible! I still have a few things to learn and the things I have learned I still need to consciously think through every step. Onward and upward.

  2. I just did the math and am probably at a half million words. I’m getting there…..huff…puff…huff…
    I think my hours are waaaaaay up there when including rewrites…

  3. I have written more than a million words, and I feel like I’m on shaky ground if I say I’m at the ‘conscious competence’ stage.

    That’s after 10-years of banging on the keys attempting to be a writer. Christopher Hitchens said “A writer has to write. He can’t not write.” I guess that’s why I keep banging those keys with little reward.

    I have sold some things after slow steady ‘conscious’ work with each step, which makes me how successful writers can shoot out story after story. (Even this comment was slow and conscious work. Ugh!)

    1. Keep at it! One question: are you feeling ‘consciously competent’ because you self-criticise your writing too deeply? All good writers do, of course – self-awareness is one of the pivots to the skill, and all the greats doubted their calibre. Do you get others to read and critique your material? That can offer perspectives, if you find the right people.

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