Sunday, June 23, 2013

Climbing for Competence

So, way back in the 1970's, some psychologist named Noel Burch got this theory about how people learn things that he called THE FOUR STAGES OF COMPETENCE. Though two of them are actually stages of INCOMPETENCE. Whatever.

According to this theory, learning only begins when you figure out that you stink at something.

The first stage of competence, or incompetence, is what Burch called Unconscious Incompetence. You can't do something and you don't even know you can't do it. The scary thing is, unless you clue in to the fact that you can't do it, you'll be stuck in this stage forever.

The second stage is Conscious Incompetence. Now you know you're bad. Like the time I joined my daughter during free skate after her weekly skating lessons and ended up mopping the ice with my backside so many times the instructor came over to ask if I was all right. Before I got out on that ice I had no idea that I was so pathetic. After I tried it, both me and the largest muscle group in my body were very well aware of my incompetence.

Next comes Conscious Competence. At this stage, you're getting somewhere. You've studied, practiced, done whatever it takes to get out of incompetence mode. But it still requires a lot of effort to perform. You have to think, focus, and fight your way through (I, uh, never got to this stage in ice skating because I haven't put on a pair of skates since that day I hit stage two).

The final, most glorious stage is Unconscious Competence. Now you've been doing this thing for so long, it comes naturally. You don't have to think about it too much anymore, like walking, or speaking your native language.

Now I'd like to add my theory, which is called THE FOUR STAGES OF WRITING COMPETENCE (OR INCOMPETENCE).

Unconsciously incompetent writers have no idea that there's anything wrong with their writing. In fact, if you try to tell them something is wrong, they won't listen.

Consciously incompetent writers have moved up a step. Now they know they don't have the skills they want. They may feel overwhelmed, discouraged, and disillusioned.

The consciously competent writer has to work hard to produce good stuff.Writing isn't always fun, but something of quality is coming out.

Last of all, at the stage we all envy and admire, the unconsciously competent writer makes it look easy. Genius flows from their mind to their fingertips to the keyboard. They've mastered the craft, and can pop out two or three novels a year without  breaking a sweat.

And now for the point I'd really like to make. TOO MANY WRITERS ARE STUCK IN THE STAGES OF INCOMPETENCE BECAUSE THEY DON'T KNOW HOW TO CLIMB TO THE NEXT LEVEL. They don't even know that they can.

I'm here to tell you that you can climb. Here's how.

First, let me clarify that all writers are at different stages when it comes to different skills. A writer might have reached unconscious competence when it comes to prose style, but still not have a clue how to create sympathetic characters.

The first step is to admit that there might be something lacking in your writing. Then go out and find out what it is. Asking other people for help at this stage is essential because remember, you can't even tell that something is wrong. You need to ask the right people for help, though. There will be plenty of friends who will tell you that your writing is all wonderful. Others might gleefully point out every flaw and make you feel stupid for trying. Pure gold is a someone who will help you see clearly what's good and what needs improvement, with the attitude that you can fix whatever is broken.

Once you've picked out some writing skill you need to work on, you've made the first leap. Now you're consciously incompetent. Congratulations! This is a great place to be. It's all up from here. But it's going to take study and work. Do some research. Read authors who have mastered the skill you seek. Ask others how they do it. Try new things. Keep at it until you get it. And you will. Trust me.

So now you've got it. But it doesn't come easy. You are consciously competent. You have to think about doing it right, or it doesn't happen. That's okay. Keep practicing. All you need to do now is keep going, and you'll eventually get to the point where this thing you're working on is a part of you.

And now at last you've made it. That thing you couldn't do at the start is as easy as breathing in and out. Guess what! Time to pick a new writing skill to work on.

The very good news is, no matter what you can't do now, you can learn to do in the future. All you have to do is realize what's missing, study and work at it, and then practice until it becomes second nature. It's a never-ending upward spiral.

Now I'm not saying you have to get EVERYTHING right before you publish. Writing fiction is such a complex process, with so many facets, there's always more to learn no matter who you are. Once you've mastered three or four major areas, you're probably ready to go. But finding success in publishing isn't only about skill. There's some luck involved too.

While you're waiting for your luck to arrive, keep climbing the stairs.


  1. I love it, Rebecca - how you explain the process to becoming a successful writer. So much of it is becoming aware of your errors and then learning how to fix them. It takes a lot of practice, and boy are you right about getting help from the right people. Writers need to continually be actively engaged in improvement, not giving up - which is easier said than done (because discouragement is part of the game). It's been the biggest help networking through writing groups, conferences and blogs, to show me where I'm lacking, and point me to the right resources for fixing it. Very well said! Thanks for another great post.

    1. Hey, thanks for your comment, Jonene. I discovered this model of learning from my American Sign Language teacher and immediately thought of how it applies to writing. Thanks for being part of my learning community.

  2. I think it's every writer's goal to reach that point where the words flow effortlessly, and the first draft is nearly identical to the final revision. Although, admittedly, I love the revision process. Thanks for this post.

    1. I hear you, Stephanie. I love revision too, to the point that I spend too much time revising and not enough time drafting. Now I'm trying to strike a balance. I don't think anyone is good enough that they can do without revision, but relying on it too much, for me at least, makes for a stale and hashed-over manuscript.


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