Monday Motivation: The long and winding road to competence

 In Monday Motivation, Richard Beynon's blog

It is a very curious process, this business of learning new skills. It proceeds by fits and starts.

It was Ernest Hemingway channeling Mark Twain or F. Scott Fitzgerald (or someone else entirely) who, when asked “How did you go bankrupt?” said “Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.”

If you’re lucky, learning goes like that. For a long time you don’t get it – then you do.

But some researchers have analysed the process of learning more rigorously. And while many of you will have stumbled across this analysis in other contexts, it might help build a little confidence by seeing it applied to writing.

We begin unconscious of our own incompetence. We know that we love reading. We know that we possess an irresistible urge to put pen to paper. We know that stories and characters are whirling about in our imaginations.

What we don’t know is how to do it. And, more than that, we don’t have a clue about how little we know. It’s here that the Dunning-Kruger Effect is most visible. The D-K Effect states a simple psychological truth: that those with the least ability in a given field are most likely to overrate their skills – precisely because they lack the knowledge they need to judge those skills.

So we’re ignorant – but we think we’re much better at this business of writing than we are.

But then we pick up a book on writing. If we’re lucky, that book is Stephen King’s On Writing. This’ll help hone those skills we have no doubt we already possess.

Or, we give a piece of our writing to a friend who risks the friendship by giving us a candid assessment.

And we realise that we are in fact very poorly equipped to begin this quite formidable journey into the realm of writing stories.

So now we are consciously incompetent. This is the stickiest patch on your road to writing excellence. You know you can’t achieve the effects you’re after; you know that isn’t the right word, but not even the thesaurus, that most over-rated of aides, can help. You know your grammar in this sentence is a little wonky, but you’re not sure what the problem is – and where the hell does the comma fall, before or after the quote marks?

But progress, thank the lord, is possible. You enrol on a creative writing course (you didn’t think these blogs were entirely free of commercials, did you?). You reread Stephen King, and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Instructions on Writing and Life. You develop a daily habit of free-writing. Quite consciously you set about developing the skills of the craft.

It is, you realise, a daunting task. But you persevere, and in time your friend – the one who doesn’t spare your feelings – tells you that he quite enjoyed that last little effort of yours. And perhaps he adds a question: “What happened next?”

Which fills your heart with joy.

But still, writing is a conscious effort. You’ve pasted a list of things to bear in mind above your desk: Start scenes late, reads one of the items, end them soon. Another reminds you not to drown your reader in backstory. Yet a third is a piece of advice that Elmore Leonard gave writers: Leave out the bits that readers skip.

You apply the various rules of the craft. You deploy the tactics you’ve learned to generate suspense. You strive to keep your details vivid and particular. And you do your damnedest to avoid cliché.

This is the phase of learning in which you are consciously competent. It can be exhausting. And it can and does entail a great deal of rewriting because, despite those lists, and the books you’ve read, and the courses you’ve so assiduously taken, you still sometimes revert to old habits: the overuse of exposition, writing scenes which do not take the story forward, registering the effect before you’ve established the cause.

But because you’ve learned a whole stack of skills, you spot these errors and correct them.

And finally, years after your journey began, you find yourself on the sunny uplands of your craft, where you’ve so integrated the many skills involved in writing fiction that you are, at last, unconsciously competent.

Which is not to say that everything you write is perfect – that is a destination denied every writer. (Even Homer nods, they say.) Nor does it mean that you’ll not doubt the quality of your writing. But it does mean that you’re capable of translating the visions with which your imagination is filled into words and sentences and paragraphs that, more or less, do them justice.

Happy writing,


Read Jo-Anne’s latest blog: ‘Writing Secrets: Who cares if you feel it – just make sure we do

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