By Cynthia Coate Ray
The other day I pulled up a story that I had written several years ago when I had just begun to write seriously. All the glaring errors of the beginning writer jumped out at me and made me laugh. The bones of a good story were there, but it was clumsily written. I realized how far I had come and waves of gratitude poured through me to my wonderful fellow writers, my critique groups, and my teachers who helped me to grow and develop along the way.
Everyone goes through stages or phases when learning to write, unless, of course, you are one of the blessed souls who emerges from the womb with a pen in one hand and a journal in the other, having written a book of poetry on the in-utero experience. The rest of us have to wend our way through the four stages of learning.
The first stage is called unconscious incompetence, followed by conscious incompetence. Next is conscious competence. The fourth and final stage is unconscious competence.
The beginning writer thinks, “I love to write. I’m going to write a novel.” They thrust their manuscript at the unsuspecting reader, brimming with confidence. After a few pages, the reader realizes that the writer has no idea of basic story structure, the finer points of grammar, and the importance of point of view. They don’t know what they don’t know. Some writers never make it past the point of unconscious incompetence, because they are not willing to receive feedback. Stephen King said that you can make a good writer better, but you can’t make a bad writer good. If thats true, it’s only because the writer isn’t willing to become aware of their incompetence.
Reaching out for advice from experienced writers, whether in a class, a book on writing or a critique group is the cure. Exposing those blind spots is what makes us better if we are willing and able to hear it. Naturally, no one wants to hear that their story is boring, that the character is not likable, or that their fight scene is unbelievable. The writer’s ego is in for a beating. It takes a brave and committed person to keep going once they become aware of what is required of them to master the craft. For those with ears to hear, they realize there is more to writing a novel than having a good idea and a way with words.
Those daring souls, who are willing to put their ego aside, become consciously incompetent. They admit they have something to learn, and they tackle the basic technical mechanics of writing. They study standard story structures and forms. But most of all they practice, practice, practice. Followed by more feedback. If the would be writer sticks with it, they begin to produce good work and they start to dance on the stage of conscious competence.
Their hard work and diligence pays off. Since writing is a solitary activity, the role of critique groups, and editors is critical to revealing places where our writing needs a boost to the next level. Even the most seasoned of writers collaborate with editors to perfect their story, like polishing a many faceted gem.
Years of writing, dedication and commitment to the craft bring the seasoned writer to the place of unconscious competence. Writing is second nature. They don’t have to stop and think about point of view, pacing, or emotional impact. They just do it. They make it look easy. They turn out a story and people say, “Wow, I wish I could write like that…”