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December 29, 2015

Do You Struggle with the Learning Curve?

Curved stairs heading up with text: Stuck on the Learning Curve?

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
  • characterization
  • 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?

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What do you think?

45 Comments on "Do You Struggle with the Learning Curve?"

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Mike

Thank you for the honest admissions and competent advice. Your point about the “tsunami of crap” from many self-published authors is why I encourage others to begin by submitting to traditional publishers, establishing some level of street cred, and THEN taking the plunge into self-publishing.

Yes, I know about Hugh Howey and Andy Weir. I’ve also heard of Mozart, who could play the piano and compose at age 5. Just as most musicians must devote years to learning their craft, writers must do the same. Pointing toward the rare exception doesn’t excuse you.

Taurean J. Watkins (@Taurean_Watkins)

Still Mike, we’re not going to live forever, and for some people, trad. publishing is an endless wait for nothing, no matter how much we improve, but not having to pay for everything on our own is an enticing prospect.

I don’t argue your points, but that idealism only takes you so far, I know from a decade of painful experience. 10 years might be a small investment for you-it’s not for me and countless others whatever our career path is.

Boomsah
Boomsah

Mozart played piano at 5 years old at a 5 year old level. It took him years to get to his masterly level.

As for Howey, he went against trad publishers, and already had years (in his blog) before writing the first chapter of wool. The external validation came from the readers, not from the publishers.

Taurean J. Watkins (@Taurean_Watkins)
This probably why my journey has felt hopeless in recent years, especially this year, even though objectively I know it isn’t. I realize now it’s because sometimes my stubbornness breaks me down. Isn’t an asset, but lately it’s been a setback. There are tons of questions this post stirs in me. But I’ll focus on the bigger ones to not overwhelm people, which is becoming an issue now… Since the learning never ends, why do many posts on craft talk about “Achieving Mastery?”  Given the stance on this post, Jami, do you think this a myth that makes things harder for writers at any level (but especially those as stages 1-3) to learn anything? Is there such at thing as being too humble? (I ask this because we need some level of self-encouragement or we’ll never take action) Given the stance of your post, Is it possible to be a beginner and still succeed? How can you break dream big but break it down into steps? I always have issues with breaking things down into steps. I’d like to think I don’t have demonic delusions of grandeur, but it’s no secret I don’t just want “Talking Animal Addicts” to be a blog or book review destination, I wanted to pull an Oprah and create a global media network that’s dedicated to animal fantasy beyond the bestsellers of yesteryear and educating there’s more out there than “Redwall” and “Charlotte’s Web.” Well, I had to slow down because I was making myself crazy.… Read more »
Leticia

Since I started writing one year ago I have been studying it and I see no end to it. But writing is something you do because you enjoy it or you should pick something else to do. And there no shortcuts to competence. So you must be humble and put a lot of effort, revise the first draft until its good enough to publish, and have at least a second pair of eyes on it. I”m glad I see it all as fun.

Taurean J. Watkins (@Taurean_Watkins)

Then I must be defective, Leticia, because I don’t have fun anymore. I don’t know why, but honesty isn’t always as positive as we want it to be.

I’m glad you’re spared the pain I feel. Not everyone’s as fortunate as you.

I don’t how to do anything else.

All I’ve ever been passionate about the arts, not just writing, but music, theatre, visual artists, things that are the hardest to make careers out of.

Anne
Anne

Taurean,

I have been aiming for publication since about 1997 (despite writing creatively since my teen-age years). In 2005, I hit a couple pretty big (for me) speed bumps in my path and essentially quit writing until around 2011/2012. But *this* year (2015) I have spent *the entire year* working on my craft. I’ve been trying to face my own writing demons and decide *I* will be the one who survives. 🙂

If you are not having fun, it’s time to take stock and re-evaluate, in my opinion. Ask yourself *why* you aren’t having fun. I learned a long time back that the more obstacles that fall into my path, the closer I am to a breakthrough in my craft. The thing is, only YOU can decide if that obstacle is a dead-end roadblock, or something to climb over and keep going.

Anne.

Taurean J. Watkins (@Taurean_Watkins)

Thanks for your feedback, Anne. I’m still trying to figure out the “Why” the fun is hard to access when writing.

Again, I’m glad you don’t have this issue (at least now anymore)

I can’t take anymore breaks, and I’ve no reason to quit writing cold turkey, so I don’t know what to do.

Christina Hawthorne

Yet another valuable post. Thank you. I’ve no idea where I am on the learning curve (all over it like buckshot, I’m sure), but I do know I’ve reached the point where I cherish the journey. I MUST write even if it’s trash, but that doesn’t mean it must see the light of day. Still, all I discard has value, for each story represents mile posts on the journey, a journey with a goal, but no destination, for the learning never ends.

Thanks to my superior mathematical mind I’ve calculated the writer’s learning curve and have determined its size is roughly equal to Pluto’s orbit. H’m, Pluto. Greek god of the underworld. Seems fitting. 🙂

Serena Yung
Serena Yung
Wow, no, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone tell me that writing is “easy”! I’ve only heard of countless people saying how hard it is. And when I first started writing as a kid, I didn’t even think about the difficulty level, just that it’s super fun and thus I MUST write, haha. Also, this may be surprising to some, but no, I’m never frustrated that I still have tons to learn. In fact, as you suggested at the end of the post, I would lose interest in writing if there wasn’t an endless number of things to learn and improve on. Activities that aren’t challenging enough are boring! Lol. And I think I’ve told you before that to me, the constant learning of new things in writing, probably makes up at least half of my love for writing. So I don’t get why anyone would want to “not need to learn anymore”, lol. So I would be one of those people who are perfectly aware that they know very little, yet are very happy about this because life wouldn’t be fun anymore if we knew everything or almost everything, haha. What I would be frustrated with would be very specific things, like “How do I include all this information in this scene without boring the reader? Since I don’t want to omit any of these details. And I have no clue how to solve this problem.” But even on these things, I’m still optimistic that I will EVENTUALLY… Read more »
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[…] Do You Struggle with the Learning Curve? by author Jami Gold […]

Karen McFarland

Oh, how I yearn to live in the stage one bubble of oblivion! Sometimes. You know, the frustrating, I’m never going to get this, times! Um, I don’t think it’s possible to know everything. I think we’ll always being learning some new aspect of writing. Things change all the time, which makes it hard to keep up. Okay, back to learning! Thanks Jami. 🙂

Anne
Anne

Jami,

This post comes as I’m struggling to wrap my brain around the Second Plot Point. Do you remember in school (for me, this was pre-calculus), the teacher/professor would explain a concept and it all made *perfect* sense….until you got home and began your homework? Suddenly, it’s a foreign language.

That’s my struggle with story structure. What I have already learned has helped me a LOT in planning the major plot points. But at each one, I’ve wished I could work up my ‘homework’ and have a teacher to grade it. 🙂

I’m currently stumped on the Second Plot Point — specifically that ‘last piece of information/insight’ the hero needs to complete her quest/journey. I wonder: Did I give too much away in the earlier plot-points? Should I dial back and reveal something much later?

I would love to see the bullets above link to articles where you have covered a topic — especially since some of them are skills I haven’t even considered yet! (Writing crutches, I’m looking at YOU!)

Again, another excellent post. Your blog is among several I follow which make me believe I *CAN* do this!

Happy New Year!

Anne.

Ashley
Ashley

Depressing. My best strategy is usually to tackle the learning hard-core, while doing my best to completely ignore the fact that that’s what I’m doing (and need to do). It’s true what you say about assuming we’re good at things just because we don’t know much. I woke up one day a few years ago and realized I could recite every English monarch from Richard III, so I naturally assumed I was reasonably decent at history… until I started trying to write historical fiction! When I think about how much I don’t know – for instance, I foolishly decided to set a large part of the story at sea, even though I know nothing about sailing and STILL can’t keep port and starboard straight – I despair of ever getting there and dissolve in a mass of anxiety. But when I can ignore the fact that there’s a destination in mind and just get excited about the book I discovered about Women Sailors and Sailors’ Women, then… progress is made. If occasionally somewhat tangentially. Which I guess leads me to exactly the point you were making – enjoy the journey and stop asking “Are we there yet?”

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[…] things to keep in mind if you want to write a book. Jami Gold tackles two related topics this week: the steep learning curve of writing and why there is no one right way to write. Writing time is always at a premium, so K.M. Weiland […]

Boomsah
Boomsah

Last year, my first year writing, I googled how to write romance, then got something about masks. It was my first year writing, and so I played with this mask concept. Now, I can’t write without these masks going on autopilot. So I keep googling other things and always ended up here in jamigold. It’s my second year doing this and now I see this learning curve.

This learning curve is a beast! *roar*

James
James

Thanks for this wonderful article! So well said and so, so, SO true!

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[…] spoken many times about our learning curve as writers. Not only can it seem endless—with all the different skills we need to learn—but we can also be […]

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[…] about this over the last month, I came across a post on Jami Gold’s website about the Learning Curve of Writers. In it she goes through the four levels of competency, how a writer moves through these different […]

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[…] posted about the learning curve of writing skills before. When we’re newbie writers, we might think we’ll never be skilled enough to […]

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[…] something keeps us going. Something gives us the inspiration or the motivation to travel up that learning curve. Something helps us past that self-doubt. And something forces us to prioritize writing time […]

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[…] written many times about the long learning curve we face when we decide to become a writer. The journey is always longer than we think because we don’t know what all we don’t […]

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[…] not be aware of that area of craft at all, such as when we’re climbing the learning curve and lacking the knowledge of all the things we don’t know. Other times we know that aspect of writing craft exists, but we don’t realize that […]

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[…] might see the daunting list of areas we need to improve and feel discouraged by where we are on the learning curve, ignoring the big list of things behind us that we’re already good at or have […]

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