We are all apprentices as writers – aren’t we?

There’s no getting around the fact that writing is a learned skill – one that demands just as much work, practise and effort as becoming (say) a concert pianist. Figures that I’ve heard suggest around 10,000 hours or a million words for someone to get really good. And that, on my own experience, sounds about right.

A writer rag-tagging at Gandalf's coat-tails...
A writer rag-tagging at Gandalf’s coat-tails…

As Hemingway said, we are all apprentices. The learning curve never stops, even after you’ve mastered writing and it’s become part of your soul. But what does that really mean?

Competence and learning curves fall into four basic categories: (a) Unconscious incompetence – where the would-be writer doesn’t know enough to know what they don’t know; (b) Conscious incompetence – where the would-be writer realises just how much work is needed; (c) Conscious competence – where they have the skills, but it’s hard work to make them come together; and (d) Unconscious competence – where the author can write, really well, without really thinking.

The thing is, writing is multi-faceted. The base skill is expression – being able to put words together, to do so consistently with a reliable ‘voice’, and to have total mastery of the language.

Words become servants at point (d). But writing is about a lot more than the mechanics of word assembly there’s also competence in the subject being written about. That’s true whether the material is fiction or non-fiction. The mechanical skill of writing – of being able to put words together, have control of ‘voice’ and the rest – doesn’t diminish. But subject expertise is another matter.

When somebody who’s at point (d) in their usual subject moves into a new area, they usually drop back a notch or two. Having an ability to master words doesn’t compensate for the novelty of a new subject matter, or genre, or form of writing. And even when someone has become an expert, once again, there’s always something more to learn – something more to discover.

That’s why there is no such thing as ‘having learnt’ how to write. It’s ongoing. Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


6 thoughts on “We are all apprentices as writers – aren’t we?

  1. I believe it was Samuel Goldwyn who said, ‘the harder I work, the luckier I become’. The same premise fits with writing. The more I practice the better I get, the harder I work, the easier it becomes. And, even when you get to (d) – and I’m nowhere near that level of accomplishment yet – I think there is still more to learn. Great post, Matthew.

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