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Writing competence

There’s a theory of competence that goes something like this:

  • Unconscious incompetence: you not only don’t know how to do something, you don’t even know enough to realize how little skill you have. I think this relates to the Dunning-Kruger effect, where the less you know, the more likely you are to believe that you are knowledgeable and competent. In the writing realm, these are people who’ve never written any fiction (and possibly never read any) but tell you how easy it is to just sit at the computer all day and make stuff up. I’m not so interested in them.
  • Conscious incompetence: Once you really start to learn something, any new skill, you become painfully aware of how little you know, and how much there is to learn. No longer does that skill look easy, it looks impossible. As a writer, you start looking carefully at everything you read and despairing.
  • Conscious competence: You have learned the necessary skills, but have to work very hard to apply them. Every word requires attention and effort.
  • Unconscious competence: Mark Knopfler and Eric Clapton, if you’ll excuse me for mixing skills. The skills are so finely honed that it no longer (looks like) you have to even pay attention to them.

These aren’t absolutes. Attaining unconscious competence really just unlocks the next level so you can see all the new things you are bad at that you didn’t even realize existed.

I can write. I know how letters go together into words, words go together into sentences, where the bits of punctuation go, how to organize ideas into a coherent form. (Except for quotation marks: the American system of putting the comma inside the quotation marks offends my programmer brain and I have to think about it.) But by and large, I’ve achieved unconscious competence at the basic mechanics of the English language.

Fiction, though. I’ve been flailing around for quite some time in the conscious incompetence stage of writing fiction. I can see all the stuff I can’t do, but I can’t do it, and I know there’s more lurking that I can’t even see yet.

Viable Paradise, awesome as it was, only made this worse. Now I can see even more things I can’t do. More flailing, greater conviction that I suck as a writer of fiction and will never get any better at it. As a disciple of the Red Queen, I can simultaneously recognize that as (probably) false and firmly believe it.

This conviction persisted despite getting to do all kinds of authorial things at WFC like signing books, doing a reading, and being horribly embarrassed to have people tell me how much they liked my zombie story. Did it once, apparently, but never again. Impostor syndrome anyone?

So. Flailing. And not getting any writing done. But some of it was fizzing away back there somewhere in the nooks and crannies of my brain, and this weekend I figured something out: this thing about how sentences have to work in fiction, and I’m running full-tilt toward conscious competence with it.

Not quite there yet, and it’s a hell of a lot of work, but so much better than flailing. I have a focus now, and can see how this is/will be going. And it’s fun again.

Huh. Maybe I can do this after all.

Some writings about writing from other people for your edification:

That last link was especially helpful. I’ve never finished a novel-length work of fiction and I need to demonstrate to myself that I can. My plan is to complete the WIP, a YA fantasy novel, by the end of the year. It’s YA so it can be a bit shorter than an adult novel; I’m aiming for about 85k. I’m at 35k right now, but some of that will have to be thrown away.

I have a plan, and a new tool. Time to make more tea and get back to work.


  1. MWT says:

    Heh, I think the next level up to be unlocked is, how to string together individual scenes into a coherent row that works as a story with a beginning, middle, and end. ­čÖé At least that’s where I’m at with this novel writing thing.

  2. Sarah says:

    Oh, I worked on that for a long time, and I expect I’ll be back to it. Right now though, I’m fixated on sentences. Cute little sentences with active verbs and concrete images. *pets sentences*

    Oh, sorry… I’m okay now, honest. ­čÖé

  3. Sarah says:

    Testing something…

  4. Really still Sarah says:

    Test II (sorry, almost done)

  5. Sarah says:

    Last test; I’m stopping now.

  6. […] Several months ago, I came across the theory of competence and how it related to writing. ┬áThere’s a great blog post about it by Sarah Goslee┬áhere. […]