Essential writing skills: handling the skill transition

There are no two ways about it. Writing is a learned skill, like any other. And like most skills it takes time to master – I’ve seen figures like a million words or 10,000 hours. On my own experience, that seems about right.

Yes, this IS my typewriter. What's it doing on the Wellington Writers Walk? Er - introductions...
Yes, this IS my typewriter. What’s it doing on the Wellington Writers Walk? Er – introductions…

That shouldn’t daunt hopeful authors. Writing is a learning process and there are points along that learning curve where the material’s going to be good enough. It just takes longer to produce.

The four main steps of writing are the usual ones – starting with ‘unconscious incompetence’. You don’t know what you don’t know, haven’t learned self-critique, and joyously plough in, making every writing mistake known to humanity but having a whale of a time doing it.

In the old days, that never used to see the light of day because the traditional publishing system provided a fairly high entry barrier.

These days, anybody can publish – and a lot do, creating what US author Chuck Wendig calls a ‘shit volcano’. (Gotta love the term).

But there’s much, much more to writing. Three more stages, in fact. And it comes with training and practise. The second-to-fourth stages are:

– ‘conscious incompetence’, where you realise how much there is to learn;

– ‘conscious competence’, where you’ve learned the stuff but have to think about it; and

– ‘unconscious competence’, where it’s become second nature and writing is part of your soul.

I think the second is probably the most challenging, because suddenly the writer realises how much there is to learn – and how difficult many of the techniques actually are. A writer has to have mastery of the words, of grammar, and of language; they need mastery of the field they’re writing about; and they need mastery of the form they’re writing in – be it fiction, non-fiction or whatever.

It’s daunting, and I think a lot of writers at the ‘conscious incompetence’ stage stress over it; they so want to write, they’ve pushed ahead and got this far – discovering  how hard it is, and they fear they’ll never learn or be good enough.

To which I say – don’t sweat it. There’s a LOT to learn, but it’ll happen! If you’ve got this far you’ll get the rest of the way, step-wise. The trick is to keep writing – but to do so in a meaningful way. My suggestion? Every time you sit down to write, try asking three questions:

  1. What can I learn from this that will make me write better? Is there something I need to practise?
  2.  Where can I discover more information about this aspect of writing?
  3. How can I apply that when writing?

These questions, incidentally, apply for all writers – not just those on the learning curve. As Hemingway put it, we are all apprentices in the craft. And once you have the answers, sit down and apply them. Write something that uses the lesson. Even if it’s then thrown away – this is practise, remember. Concert pianists don’t just sit down and chop out Beethoven piano sonatas. They spend hours, days, weeks, months and years practising. And writing’s the same.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


5 thoughts on “Essential writing skills: handling the skill transition

  1. Conscious incompetent sounds about right for me. Two years ago I couldn’t write action scenes, but today I feel much more at home with a good chase through city streets and it’s all down to writing and rewriting and not shying away from something I found difficult.

    One thing that I notice when I read other mainstream published authors is how their writing doesn’t appear to be stressed out. By that I mean all the things we’re told not to do, they do it and it doesn’t seem to harm the book.

    Chris

    1. Mainstream authors are usually at the upper end of the ‘conscious competent’ learning curve (which never stops, I might add) – so can handle ‘creative rule breaking’. But to do that successfully they have to first be extremely familiar with those rules. I refer to it (with due reference to Frank Zappa) as giving the writing ‘eyebrows’. But it’s a technique that only comes with practise. What I’ve learned myself, for sure, is to never stop writing – keep questioning how it’s working, keep practising, and it all comes together.

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