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The Four Stages of Competence: Writer Edition

September 6, 2013

While listening to I Should Be Writing the other day, Noel Birch’s Four Levels of Competence were explained. Not only was this new to me, it helped me to distinguish the skill levels of many writers I have met. I have applied the Four Levels to writing for your enjoyment.

Level One: Unconscious Incompetence

You’re terrible. Really terrible. You’re so terrible you don’t even know how terrible you are. You have TALENT and therefore don’t need hard work, skill or ability. Often, this writer thinks they are the next J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, etc. and brings up their novel in every conversation imaginable. This is not always the case but we’ve all met these people on the bus or at a writing conference. You cannot help this person. Yet.

“The only reason I’m not published is that I haven’t finished anything yet.”

– That One Guy who was trying to impress me at LTUE 2010

Level Two: Conscious Incompetence

You realize how terrible you are. This may be followed by feeling overwhelmed or hopeless. You now recognize the value of hard work, skill and ability as well as how much there is to learn. This is where many give up because they recognize their mistakes. But mistakes are your friends. Keep going.

“I’ve killed it. Oh! Everything I touch gets ruined.” – Charlie Brown, A Charlie Brown Christmas Special

Level Three: Conscious Competence

You have worked hard, practiced and now have some writing ability. You are still breaking the beast of writing into smaller steps. you still make mistakes but now have the ability to fix them. With great concentration and a lot of time, you can write something worth reading. You are on the path of learning.

“Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming.” – Dory, Finding Nemo

Level Four: Unconscious Competence

You have internalized all that writing knowledge and can now compose with ease. Sometimes you can even write while doing other tasks or in the midst of distractions. Writing is second nature.

You are Brandon Sanderson, Neil Gaiman or similar.

I love this breakdown. I’ve started to analyze all sorts of trades in my life with this system. I am definitely at level four when it comes to knitting. I can knit while doing almost anything and have yet to find a pattern I cannot master.

When it comes to writing, I think I’m at level three. I can write more easily than I used to but I have yet to practice certain skills, like doing line edits on the 12th draft of a novel or writing a sequel. I often panic myself back to level two. So I guess I hover.

But I wonder how many professional writers would rate themselves at level four. Can you ever truly reach level four as a writer? I feel like there is always more to learn. From all the writers I’ve met, I’ve observed the best ones to be humble enough to admit they don’t know it all. Emerson put it best:

Shall I tell you the secret of the true scholar?
It is this : Every man I meet is my master
in some point, and in that I learn of him.

One Comment leave one →
  1. February 27, 2015 4:12 pm

    Ƭhis website was… how do I say it? Relevant!! Finally I’ve found something tɦat helped
    me. Thanks!

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