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June 30, 2020

How Can We Learn and Improve Our Writing Skills?

Mountain climber on rope with text: 5 Ways to Climb the Learning Curve

When we first start writing, we have no idea what all we don’t know. That uncertainty can make it difficult for us to improve.

How can we get better if we don’t know what’s holding us back? Let’s take a look at five of the most common ways we can try to improve our skills—and the strengths and pitfalls of each…

Why Is It So Hard to Improve?

As I’ve talked about before, there are four stages of competence. Our ability to recognize that improvement is possible—or necessary—changes at each stage:

  • Stage 1: Unconscious Incompetence
    This is the “we don’t know what all we don’t know” stage. The biggest problem with this stage is that we can’t research advice, look up tips, experiment with techniques, or otherwise improve until we know the skill exists.
  • Stage 2: Conscious Incompetence
    Frustration is rampant here. We’re faced with a huge list of things to learn, and every time we think we’re getting somewhere with one skill, we become aware of two more skills we need to learn.
  • Stage 3: Conscious Competence
    It’s still not easy to produce quality work—we have to pay attention and put in a lot of effort—but at least we know it’s possible to learn this stuff. However, we also need to keep our ears open for new skills to add to our list of things to learn.
  • Stage 4: Unconscious Competence
    This is the stage we dream of, where we can rely on instinct or other automatic processes to create quality work. But the mind can get lazy, and we all need editing to keep the bad habits leading to the entropy of our skills at bay.

Our progress on that list depends on which skill we’re talking about. With some skills, we might be far into Stage 3, but with other skills, we might still be in the unaware Stage 1.

5 Paths to Improvement:
Strengths & Weaknesses

The better our guess for where each of our skills land on that list, the better we’ll know which improvement path might help us the most. Why is that?

Each of the various approaches to improving our skills comes with different strengths and weaknesses. Some paths are better at helping with skills at one Stage and less helpful with skills at another Stage, so let’s dig deeper into what each path can do for us.

Improvement Path #1:
Practice, Practice, Practice

We’ve probably all heard the saying that “practice makes perfect.” However, that’s not quite true.

When it comes to skills, we can only improve once we have an idea of what’s holding us back. Practicing the wrong thing won’t help us and will, in fact, only deepen our experience with those mistakes.

Why won't practice alone help us improve our writing craft? Click To Tweet

For a simplistic example, let’s say we learn the wrong way to spell a word. Writing out that word—practicing, in other words—with the inaccurate spelling will only teach us the wrong way to spell it.

Obviously, practice is an important aspect of helping us improve. But that practice needs to be deliberate and focused on accurate information and new knowledge and skills, as practicing the wrong thing, or even just the same thing, over and over again won’t lead to improvement.

Weaknesses of the Practice Path:

  • Practice won’t help us with skills at Stage 1.

At Stage 1, we don’t know enough to recognize when something is a problem. For example, if we go back to the issue of a misspelled word, we don’t know enough to recognize that the word is misspelled. In fact, we’re convinced the word is spelled correctly, so we don’t think to verify the spelling in the dictionary, and any practicing would just reinforce our mistaken idea of how the word should be spelled.

  • Practice that’s just for the sake of practice can hurt us at Stage 4.

At the other end with Stage 4, the biggest risk is allowing our brain to get lazy or resting on our laurels. So practice just for the sake of practice could act like busywork, pushing our brain to go into lazy “automatic” mode. Instead, any practice here should be for a purpose, such as either to push ourselves or simply to do real writing.

Strengths of the Practice Path:

  • Practice is best for skills at Stage 2 and Stage 3.

Going back to our misspelled word example, at Stage 2, we know that we often misspell the word. So we know enough to double check our work and fix our mistakes.

At Stage 3, we still might get the word wrong on the first try, but we know to pay attention. At both of these Stages, practice will eventually help us spell the word correctly on the first try.

Improvement Path #2:
Self-Editing

Self-editing is the process of using what we’ve learned to improve our writing, often during a specific editing process after drafting our story. Self-editing can be tricky for many, however.

What are the pros and cons of 5 common ways to improve our writing craft? Click To Tweet

Obviously, the process of self-editing requires us to be able to fix issues in our writing, and just as obviously, we can only fix problems that we’ve learned about. But there’s another reasons why self-editing can be difficult.

The process of self-editing also requires us to be able to find issues in our writing. Even if we know and understand a writing craft skill—and can point it out in others’ writing—we might struggle with being able to step back enough from our story to find it in our own writing.

Weaknesses of the Self-Editing Path:

  • Self-editing won’t help us with skills at Stage 1.

Like with the practice path above, at Stage 1, we don’t know enough to recognize when something is a problem. So at this Stage we don’t know enough to be able to find issues in our writing.

  • Self-editing won’t help at other Stages if we can’t find problems.

If we can’t find issues in our writing for whatever reason, such as if we struggle to gain distance, it won’t matter if we have the skills to fix the problem. So before self-editing, we’d need help finding issues first.

Strengths of the Self-Editing Path:

Not only is self-editing free, unlike some of our other options, but self-editing can also save us money in other ways. For example, if we contract with a professional editor, we might get a lower rate if our writing is “clean” of many issues.

Most importantly, the skills of self-editing are important, no matter what paths we attempt on our learning curve. Knowing enough to self-edit will help us judge whether writing advice is good or bad or irrelevant. Or as we look for a professional editor, we’ll have a better idea of how skilled they are by analyzing their editing suggestions against our knowledge.

Improvement Path #3:
Informal Learning

With writing skills, some of what we need to learn can be picked up by informal learning. In other words, we can learn by reading other authors.

When we read other authors, especially in our genre, we can subconsciously pick up knowledge. Even better, if we pay attention while we read others, our reading can help us identify and improve issues in our writing.

For example, by reading books in our genre, we can learn about the expectations and/or options of our genre:

  • types of characters and plots
  • level of worldbuilding
  • emotional depth
  • point of view
  • amount/depth of subplots
  • voice style (such as how a Young Adult voice-style is different from a historical voice-style)
  • tropes and clichés
  • story ending/promise of the genre
  • pacing and stakes
  • etc., etc.

Weaknesses of the Informal Learning Path:

The main problem with this technique is that it can be hard to learn specific, targeted skills. That is, if we want to learn from examples of how to show and not tell, we need the book we choose to read to do it well. So this path is more helpful when we’re not trying to learn a specific lesson.

Another weakness of this method is that we do need to pay attention as we read. Reading “just for fun” might still subconsciously register a few lessons, but in general, we have to be more active and less oblivious while we read for this purpose.

One lament many writers share is that becoming a writer makes it hard to read “just for fun,” and this need to pay attention is a big reason for that difficulty. We can get so used to trying to learn something from our reading that it can be hard to turn off and just sit back and enjoy.

Strengths of the Informal Learning Path:

If we’re able to pick up lessons from stories we read, our skills can benefit at any Stage. At Stage 1, we might learn to recognize that we are doing something wrong, and at the other Stages, we can study how to do it better.

Obviously, we’re also not limited to learning just from the list above. We can see a well-crafted sentence and figure out what makes it sing, we can analyze what makes a story event feel emotional to us, we can notice the difference between shallow and deep point of view, and so on.

Improvement Path #4:
Formal Learning

Another common path to learning is through formal—that is, targeted—learning. Rather than relying on the indirect and somewhat osmosis style learning of studying examples from other writers, formal learning provides us with direct instruction.

In many respects, anything lumped into “writing advice” qualifies as formal learning. This blog is an example of formal learning because posts often directly address specific writing craft concepts. Other types of formal learning include non-fiction writing books, workshops, writing-focused forums with questions and answers, coaching/mentoring, etc.

With formal learning, we might be able to ask our questions ourselves, such as with an “ask an editor” forum. Or we might learn from the answers when others ask questions relevant to us and our writing. Or we might seek out instruction for a specific issue.

Weaknesses of the Formal Learning Path:

As I’ve talked about many times before, not all writing advice is “good” or relevant to us. Our genre might have different expectations, our tendencies might not match up with the usual, we might have different goals, the usual advice might not apply to our processes, and so on. If we don’t know enough about our own needs or weaknesses, we can struggle with being able to identify when advice isn’t a good fit for us.

For example, if we’re in late Stage 1 or early Stage 2 of crafting sentences that flow well, we might have only a vague notion that our sentences need work. But if we simply Google what we think might be wrong, we might end up with advice to “write tight” when really we need advice about how to eliminate choppy writing.

In addition, some types of formal learning cost money, such as workshops or coaching. That money can be wasted if we seek out or listen to advice that doesn’t help us, such as if it’s irrelevant to our needs.

Most importantly, any advice will be of limited use if we’re not ready to understand. Even with the best, most accurate advice in the world, if we don’t understand the craft skill involved, we might assume the advice is wrong, or we might implement only the barest surface improvements.

Strengths of the Formal Learning Path:

For those who struggle with picking up the indirect lessons of informal learning, formal learning is often the fastest and easiest way to learn. Rather than bumping about randomly, hoping to pick up the skills we need, we can seek out answers to our questions and advice for our specific weaknesses.

At Stage 1, we often won’t know enough to seek out the right kind of helpful advice, but there’s still value in starting to immerse ourselves in all the knowledge we’ll need to know for our enormous learning curve. As we progress through the Stages, if we review what we’ve learned, we’ll often find new insights from previous advice as we learn more about the issue.

At the remainder of the Stages, formal learning is often an efficient method to discover what we need to know. Once we’ve gotten our answers, we can then practice our knowledge to improve our skills.

Improvement Path #5:
Get Feedback

What do we mean by “get feedback”? Feedback can refer to comments, questions, and suggestions from beta readers, critique partners, writing forums, and editors.

Feedback is like formal learning in that it gives us advice, but the advice is specific to our writing, our story, our characters, and our plot. In short, feedback gives us an idea of our strengths and weaknesses and can point out issues in our writing.

Weaknesses of the Feedback Path:

Feedback is one of the best ways we can improve our writing skills, but there’s also a danger, especially in the early Stages. Like with the path of formal learning and writing advice, what if the feedback is “bad” or inaccurate? And what if we don’t know enough to recognize that the feedback is wrong or unhelpful?

Or what if—in our struggles to find good sources of feedback—those giving feedback to us are too “nice” and don’t point out anything we can use to improve? In many ways, too-nice feedback is just as unkind as too-mean feedback because it’s not going to help us reach our potential.

On the other hand, like with the formal learning path, even the best feedback will be of limited use if we don’t know enough to be able to fix whatever issues are pointed out. Early in my learning curve, I needed to revisit feedback I’d received before every few months to see what new ways I could apply the information, now that I understood the problem better.

In addition, some sources of feedback, such as editors or professional beta readers, can cost us money. If we seek out paid feedback too early, we might not know enough to be able to implement a significant portion of the information we receive to make the cost worthwhile. Paid professional editing might be more appropriate when most of our skills are at Stage 3 and beyond.

Strengths of the Feedback Path

  • Feedback can be essential for Stage 1.

Sometimes feedback is the best way to learn what writing issues we need to improve. Stage 1 is a tricky stage, as we can’t fix what we don’t know if broken, and we can’t learn and improve what we don’t know needs work.

At the same time, we likely don’t know when we’re in Stage 1 because we’re not aware of what we don’t know. In many cases, we may seek feedback on one issue only to discover that we need to work on other issues too. Feedback that we can refer back to again and again as we learn more can help us see where to start on multiple issues.

  • Feedback can be helpful at any Stage.

At later Stages, we might know how to fix problems, but feedback can still be helpful in pointing out and finding issues that we struggle to find on our own. No matter how much we know, every writer needs editing, and depending on our self-editing skills, feedback can be the best source of insights for what to improve.

That said, the most helpful feedback must be good. Obviously, that means the advice and insights should be accurate and appropriate, but beyond that, helpful feedback will dig into our writing.

When will feedback be most helpful for us in improving our writing craft? Click To Tweet

That doesn’t necessarily mean that we need feedback from someone more experienced or further on the learning curve than we are. Because writers are often better about finding issues in others’ work than in their own, a group of mostly Stage 2 writers would be able to help us improve. Or even non-writer beta readers can be helpful if they read with a critical eye.

As mentioned above, feedback can be kind, but it must also be honest enough to explore the potential of our writing. Those giving feedback should be able to give us enough information to judge why they gave the comments or suggestions they gave. Great feedback doesn’t just help us find problems but can also help us figure out how to fix issues.

Final Thoughts

Over the span of our huge learning curve for all the various writing skills, we’re likely to use all of these paths. Depending on our brain and learning style, some paths might work better for some types of skills, and other paths might work better for us with other types of skills.

For example, some of us might have learned the grammatical rules for comma use by informal learning “osmosis,” simply by reading other edited work and subconsciously noting how commas were used or not used. For others of us, seeing the rules laid out in formal instruction, such as in a grammar book, will be more helpful for learning the specifics.

If we struggle to learn or make progress on our learning curve, we might benefit from remembering all the other potential improvement paths. One path doesn’t work to help us learn? Let’s try a different path that might work better with our brain and this skill. *smile*

10 Year Blogiversary Reminder!

My blogiversary is coming up mid-July, and that means 2 things:

As I announced a few weeks ago, after 1000+ posts and ten years of publishing articles every Tuesday and Thursday, I’m giving myself the gift of an irregular schedule. So this is a great time to make sure you’re signed up for my blog-post newsletter so you don’t miss any of my new scheduled-when-I-feel-like-it posts! 😉

My blogiversary also means that it’s time to enter my 10th Annual Blogiversary Contest! The more comments we get on that post, the more winners we’ll have. 😀

Have you ever struggled with learning a concept in a certain way? Have you had more luck when trying to learn it a different way? Do the strengths and weaknesses for each of these paths make sense? Do you have a favorite path, or is there one that rarely works for you? Do you have any insights to share about how we can learn and improve?

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Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

Jami, another helpful post! Thanks.

Dawn

This is helpful. I’m glad you pointed out that writing isn’t just one big skill, but a collection of several skills. I know I’m consciously competent in some things, but certainly not in everything. Thanks to beta readers, I’ve found out about things I was unconsciously incompetent in. I’m sure there is still even more that I don’t know.

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