Have you ever noticed that when we first start a big project with a huge learning curve, our struggle often gets harder at first rather than easier? The situation is so common that it’s almost a cliché to say, “If I only knew how hard it would be, I’m not sure I would have gone through with it.”
Learning the craft of writing is one of those big projects. Writing requires a humongous learning curve. I know several writers who have admitted they might not have stuck with writing if they knew how much time and effort it would take to excel.
Every time we turn around, it seems like we have to learn about another aspect of writing:
- grammar and mechanics
- sentence rhythm and flow
- showing vs. telling
- big-picture storytelling
- plotting and beats
- pacing, tension, and stakes
- how stakes drive motivation
- themes, motifs, and symbolism
- worthy antagonists and villains
- three-dimensional characters
- secondary characters that aren’t flat either
- subplots that add to the story and don’t distract
- strong turning points that resonate
- Black Moments that are really black
- Climax beats that bring all the story threads together
- story opening hooks
- scene and chapter transitions
- goals, motivations, and conflicts
- emotional character arcs
- avoiding information dumps
- active descriptions and settings
- finding and eliminating our writing crutches
- Motivation-Reaction Units
- scenes and sequels
- Etc., etc.
In other words, it seems like we have to learn a near-endless set of skills because that list really is nearly endless. I could easily go on for another 20 bullet points just off the top of my head. If I put in more than five minutes of thinking beyond the top of my head, I could come up with an additional 50 skills we need to learn. Maybe more.
The writing learning curve seems huge because it is huge. Massive, in fact.
(If you’re not familiar with any of those topics, I have posts—often several—on most of them. Use the search box in my sidebar to explore. If you can’t find articles on a topic you want, let me know. I always appreciate ideas for future posts!)
Back when I first started writing, I was frustrated with that learning curve. I wanted to be done and over with it so I could just get on with the process of writing. But after 7 years and 8 completed stories, I’ve gained insights into how the learning curve works. *smile*
No Matter How Big We Think the Learning Curve Is, It’s Actually Bigger
Underestimating the learning curve is how we get into trouble. We tend to think we’re much closer to being done with learning than we really are because we don’t know what all we don’t know.
We might have a good grasp of one aspect of writing, but we might not have even considered a whole different focus of skills. And if we’re not aware of it, chances are we’re not very good at it. According to the Dunning-Kruger Effect, the less we know about something, the more we assume we know and assume we’re competent.
Just look at the “tsunami of crap” from a not-small percentage of self-published authors to see evidence of how many writers think they’re more skilled than they really are. (And let’s not even talk about the many stories from traditional publishers that aren’t much better.)
To some extent, that mismatch of self-perception and reality isn’t their fault. Before any of us could know where we need to fill in the blanks, we would need an objective idea of where we fall on an all-encompassing skills list like the 100+ bullet items I alluded to above.
Of course, that list doesn’t exist. That means we can’t possibly know where we might be lacking. Not to mention that it would be difficult to objectively measure our ability with each of those items.
The Four Stages of Competence
This theory of learning works really well for understanding our learning curve:
Stage 1: Unconscious Incompetence:
This is the “we don’t know what all we don’t know” stage. When most of us first start off writing, we begin here. We have no idea what lies ahead of us as we decide to take on the challenge. We might not even realize there is a challenge.
Perhaps we’ve even heard others talk about how writing is easy. All we have to do is sit on the computer all day and make stuff up, right?
Those who quit their day job and think they’re going to be able to write a book and start bringing in the money to make up the difference in 3-6 months (yes, I’ve known writers to do that!) fall into this category.
The biggest problem with this stage is that we’re stuck and have no ability to improve. We can’t research advice, look up tips, experiment with techniques, or otherwise improve until we know the skill exists.
Stage 2: Conscious Incompetence:
This is the depressing stage because we start to realize just how much we have to learn. Writers reach this stage and despair of ever being as good as the published authors out there. Those authors make it look so easy, and we can’t see how we’ll get from our point A to their point B.
On the other hand, this is where we can start getting better. The first step to improving with a new skill is realizing we have to learn it. We might not be any good at the new skill for a while (that’s the “incompetence” aspect), but we are making an effort, and that effort will eventually help us make progress.
However, we can be misled when we first start making progress here into thinking that we’re further on the overall learning curve than we are. Just because we’re making progress in the areas we’re aware of (like from that bullet list above) doesn’t mean that our overall learning curve has changed much. Most likely, there’s still a large portion of the list remaining in Stage 1—meaning that we haven’t even started with those skills yet.
In other words, frustration is rampant here. We’re faced with a huge list of things to learn, and that’s before we realize that the list is even bigger than we thought. And every time we think we’re getting somewhere with one skill, we become aware of two more skills we need to learn. It’s the classic “one step forward, two steps back” scenario that can make us want to give up.
Stage 3: Conscious Competence:
If we manage to hang on and not give up, some of our skills eventually reach this point. It’s still not easy to produce quality work, and we have to really pay attention and put in a lot of effort, but our writing can be good for the areas of focus we push to this level. Sure, we might have a lot more to learn, but at least we know it’s possible to learn this stuff.
The danger at this stage is that we might feel competent enough that we stop keeping our ears open for new skills to add to our list of things to learn. Now that we’re actually good at something, we might think that if we can only bring our other skills still in Stage 2 to this level that we’d be done.
In reality, there are likely still skills that are stuck in Stage 1. In other words, every time we think we’re getting close, we still might not be anywhere close to “ready” to submit or publish.
Stage 4: Unconscious Competence:
This is the stage we dream of, where the words flow smoothly, plots hang together automatically (even if we’re a pantser), and we never have to worry about pacing or characterization issues. At this point, not only are we good at a skill, but we can rely on instinct or other automatic processes to create that quality work.
Obviously, we think everything will be easy, if only we could learn enough to reach this stage. This stage makes us think we’re done with learning.
The problem once again is that just because some of our skills reach this point, we likely have plenty of other skills that we’re still working on in the previous two stages. Worse, we probably still have other areas of focus that are stuck in Stage 1 that we haven’t even started with.
Also, if we’ve ever seen a skilled author’s new works decrease in quality over time, there’s a tendency to think that skills at this level will remain that perfect forever, or that we wouldn’t need editing anymore. However, just because skills are automatic doesn’t mean sloppiness is no longer relevant.
Ever typo-misspell a word you know? Same thing. Sloppiness happens, the human mind can get lazy, and we all need editing to keep the bad habits leading to the entropy of our skills at bay. Resting on our laurels really means that our skills will degrade.
How Can We Avoid the Frustration?
Frustration is possible at every stage. We might assume we’re better than we are when we’re really still at Stage 1, and thus we could get frustrated when others don’t recognize our “brilliance.” At the other end, we could get frustrated that we’re not done with every skill just because we’re done with some of them. In the middle of the curve, we can experience frustration when we’re in the thick of the struggle to learn.
Believe me, I’ve been there—frustrated at every stage. But that frustration helped me realize a few truths about the learning curve:
- Keep Our Focus Narrow:
Rather than focusing on our progress along the overall learning curve (which is near-impossible to judge), we’re better off treating each skill as a separate learning curve. Those separate curves are far easier to judge, and as a bonus, it’s easier to feel a sense of accomplishment as we make progress on each one.
- Stay Humble:
Whether we have 1% or 99.99% of our skills at Stage 4, we should still allow for the fact that we might have others at Stage 1. Each skill needs to pass through all four stages, so on some level, we might always be a beginner with something.
- Search for New Skills:
We can actively search out new skills to add to our list. Most of my skills—the ones I know of anyway—are at Stage 3 or 4 (with a few stragglers at Stage 2, probably). However, I still widely read craft books and writing posts to try to find skills I might be missing. In fact, each skill we become aware of can unlock the next level of the list, adding several more related skills to learn.
- Don’t Expect the Learning to End:
On our writing journey, there’s no destination of knowing everything we need to know. It doesn’t exist. We can learn about specific skills and improve our craft, but we should never stop learning.
The Destination Is Not the Point
Our goal shouldn’t be to reach the point of being “done” with learning. Once we’ve become comfortable and feel like we’re at the top of our game, that’s the perfect time to start learning new skills, experimenting with different techniques, and rethinking our instincts in order to stretch ourselves even more.
The more I understood the learning curve and the more I learned overall, the weaker my desire became to know where I was on the overall learning curve. I want to keep learning, growing, and pushing myself. Stagnation is one step away from death.
If you’re anything like me, if we ever did feel that we’d learned everything about writing, we’d probably get bored and move on to something else. Luckily, I don’t think we’re in danger of that anytime soon. *smile*
Do you struggle with the huge learning curve for writing skills? Do you agree that it’s impossible to see our objective progress on an all-encompassing skills list and know how much more we have to learn? Does that uncertainty bother you? Do you enjoy the learning journey or do you long for it to end? What type of frustration have you experienced with the learning curve?Pin It