Writing only looks easy. But it can be learned.

Writing isn’t something you can sit down and do without training. It only looks that way.

Spot my title in the middle...
Spot my title in the middle…

I’ve noticed, of late, various posts and comments around the blog-o-sphere along the lines of ‘my book is good, because I got positive comments on Good Reads (or Amazon, or Smashwords), so why did an agent say it was terrible?’

Or ‘I got positive comments on Good Reads, but the agent said the book needed this-and-this-and-this…’

Why? There’s no soft way to say this. Fact is that neither writer nor on-line reviewer actually knew what constituted a good book – meaning not just an abstract measure of quality and authorial competence, but what’s required for a specific market.

Agents do. So do commissioning editors.

What’s happened is that the aspiring writer’s sat down and thought ‘I want to be a writer’ – usually, meaning ‘novellist’. They’ve then churned out a novel. Which is, of course, an absolutely wonderful achievement and ambition; and all power to their writing arm. But writing, like every skill, has to be learned – and the four stages of competence apply, absolutely, to writing. I’ve said it before, but it deserves repeating:

1. Unconscious incompetence – you don’t know enough to realise you don’t know what you’re doing.
2. Conscious incompetence – you realise how much there is to learn.
3. Conscious competence – you know what you have to do, but it’s a conscious effort, mechanical.
4. Unconscious competence – it’s become part of your soul and your writing soars.

Going from start to finish takes a million words and about 10,000 hours. There are no short cuts.

Yes, some authors have an aptitude for it – but what this means is that they start off as a talented ‘unconscious incompetent’.

Does that mean giving up? Au contraire, my friends. It’s a challenge; and it’s a challenge that can – must – and will be met.

Training helps. So do writing groups. But the real progress comes from the doing – the hard yards; and the reality is that, until you’ve accomplished at least a sizeable fraction of that million word/10,000 hour learning curve, all writing will be just that – a learning curve.

Equally, it doesn’t mean stuff written along the curve is unpublishable. Quite the contrary – but I guarantee you’ll look back on it later and know you can do better today.

That always happens anyway – learning never stops, even when you’ve become unconsciously competent and writing has become part of your soul.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014


Shameless self-promotion:


Also available on iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/nz/book/bateman-illustrated-history/id835233637?mt=11

Nook coming soon.

Buy the print edition here: http://www.batemanpublishing.co.nz/ProductDetail?CategoryId=96&ProductId=1410

26 thoughts on “Writing only looks easy. But it can be learned.

  1. Agreed. However, taking into consideration the trend is also a factor. I know what I want to write and read is not where the industry seems to be going.

    As much as I adore agents and publishers, I am happy that I have self published authors out there. I like to decide what is a great book worth my time and money.

    With that said, I absolutely agree that every writer, no matter experience, needs to continue to improve. It’s a learned skill that can be sharpened and it can also be forgotten.

    Been enjoying your posts lately! Thanks for the time and effort you put into them!


    1. Thanks for the thumbs-up! Yes, I agree about the industry not heading where a lot of people want to go, in terms of reading. What’s driving it in part is the change to the nature of publishing – the big houses are falling back on sure-fire commercial sellers and not taking risks on more interesting material. That’ll change in due course as the ground-shift in publishing shakes down. However, the onus is still on the indie publishers to push the bounds of quality – and a lot do, but the democratisation of the industry, through Amazon and others opening the gates for anybody, also lets through people who have great ideas, but haven’t yet developed the wiriting, editing and publishing chops to really bring them to fruition. It’ll come, of course, but we’re not there yet.


  2. I love these four stages. It sounds spot on to me. I don’t know how many times I’ve read that to be a writer…you must write. I think that’s an oblique way of saying you must work towards that million words to attain writing competence. Great post!


    1. Thanks. It’s absolutely true. Being taught ‘how to write’ is only the beginning – the trick is to take that framework and run with it, which can only be done one way if you’re an author. If I recall correctly, ‘You Must Write’ was one of Robert Heinlein’s five key rules for writers…kind of an obvious thing to say until you think about what he actually meant by it.


  3. Reblogged this on Sleepy Book Dragon and commented:
    Some great words of advice here. Never throw away your old stuff. Keep everything. Maybe, in the future, you can go back to it and realise you can use or recycle some of it.


  4. I miss Stage One. At the time I didn’t comprehend how nice it was to experience a naïve enjoyment in not having a clue what I was doing. Now I know enough to realize how awful most of my writing is – guess the only solution is to generate more…


    1. …and more, and more after that! 🙂 The good part about the learning curve for writers is that most of us *have* to write. It’s not too much of a chore to push the boundaries. Mind you, I guess that’s likely true for anybody pursuing their passion.


  5. Its a tough slog sometimes, building a functional vocabulary alone is tough but I do agree, writing can be learned and it does take the 10,000 hours to get there… I’ll get there one day


  6. This is something I’ve learned as I wrote the commentaries I did for a community newspaper. The more I wrote, the more adept I became at writing them.

    When it came to writing my first romance novel I had to learn a whole new set of rules, a new set of rules which apply to writing fiction as opposed to the rules I had to deal with in writing non-fiction. Now with one romance novel under my belt, one romance novel which is now over 90% completed, and the two romance novellas I’m currently writing, I’m finding it easier and easier to write them, albeit I still need to tweak these rules a little depending on the actual sub-genre of romance I’m writing in.


    1. Yes, practise makes perfect – and that’s true for writing, as it is for everything.

      Thanks for your offer relative to guest posting, however I only run my own posts on this blog.


  7. To be brutally honest, it doesn’t even LOOK easy. If I have to edit a bit of dialogue again, I will scream!

    I am sure it can be learnt and I am sure some are born with it.

    Bottom line for most……HARD WORK!


  8. This piece is right on! I fear there are many well-intentioned self-published authors out there who suffer from unconscious incompetence and who fall victim to the praise of the unschooled reviewer. These writers should not stop writing – I second the statement about the million word/10,000 hour learning curve. Way back in the l970s when I started writing, I read something similar and, by golly, I wrote my million words without publishing a single mark of punctuation. Whether this has been of any value you’ll have to judge for yourself by reading my books. So, especially if you’re young and have a lot of life ahead of you, don’t be in a rush. Keep writing and practicing and someday you’ll find you’ve become consciously competent. And oh, yes, just because you have a book worked over by a skilled copyeditor, that doesn’t make it well-written. The quality of the writing is an intangible that only the author can control. Even if you had the book edited for content, it’s still your baby and only you can mold it into a mature adult.


    1. You’re right – one of the other pitfalls of today’s self-pub world is the way that it’s possible to just – publish. Often prematurely. Good things do take time.

      Oh yes, copy-editors…I’ve had instances where copy-editors have butchered my work, purely because my style clashed with what they preferred. The essence of editing isn’t, of course, to fight the author’s styling. And these editors are people who, themselves, are often not experienced writers. The ‘second pair of eyes’ principle is essential – but as you say, only the writer can control the quality of the material.


  9. Very true. Although I might disagree with the point about agents / commissioning editors knowing what constitutes a “good book”. There are a lot of horrendous traditionally published books out there. So I’d say that agents and commissioning editors are significantly *better* at determining which books are good, but certainly not infallible 🙂


    1. Sometimes they do mis-step! These days, too, one agent/editor criteria seems to be ‘will it sell into a falling market’ – reducing selection to only the most obviously commercial products, and quality to the lowest common denominator. Even successful mid-range authors are finding it hard to place titles. That helps keep the publisher bottom line going, though it’s a death-spiral, in the end, for good books.


    1. You’ll get there! Keep pushing the writing boundaries – moving forwards, step-wise. It’s perhaps a slow journey, but for writers the journey itself is part of the experience. Possibly the most rewarding part!
      – Matthew


  10. Writers write and then, they write some more. I was just thinking about this the other day, recognizing how much I do not know (about everything) but writing every day is my way of connecting to the questions. The reasons I write have changed over the decades but at some point, fairly recently I suspect, I stopped worrying about outcome so I immersed myself in writing in a way I never have. Not sure this makes much sense in the context of this post, one your finest posts on writing (for me), yet when I read your four stages, I smile. In other words, I am content, bouncing back and forth among the stages. Wonderful post, Matthew.


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