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Many years ago, I had a boss who taught me about the various levels of competence. As a basketball coach and volunteer who loves working with kids, I have found this simple model extremely helpful in teaching  a new skill, or gauging someone’s progress. It wasn’t until I started writing, however, that I truly discovered just how daunting the task of transitioning between stages can be.


The first four stages are: (1) unconscious incompetence, (2) conscious incompetence, (3) conscious competence, and (4) unconscious competence. Don’t let the similar names fool you, there are vast differences between each group. Learning how to quickly and effectively traverse these barriers has been instrumental in my growth, both as a writer, and as a person. Let’s take a closer look:

Unconscious incompetence simply means that you’re bad at something and don’t even know it––you’re not conscious of the fact that you suck. In your mind, you think you’re good, and don’t realize the rest of the world doesn’t share your opinion. For a lot of writers, this is a common holding position. They’re not good, but they think they are, and therefore never make any serious strides to improve.

The second stage, conscious competence, is perhaps the most critical. It’s the light bulb––the epiphany that you’re not good at something. It involves taking the blinders off and realizing that you’re writing isn’t nearly at the level you always thought it was. This may seem like a horrible stage to be, but it’s actually wonderful in my opinion. Why? Because it leads to the next step, which is learning how to become better.

Conscious competence is the ability to do something by applying yourself. It means that you can do it, but you have to consciously work at it in order to get it right. Think about the alphabet song, or practicing arithmetic––tools you consciously applied until you knew the lessons by heart. For good writers, this stage often involves learning to avoid the passive voice, shun the excessive use of adverbs, and to tell facts but show emotions. If you’re still learning these conventions as a writer, don’t panic. It’s all part of the process.

Unconscious competence is the stage everyone wants to get to. It’s the ability to perform a task without having to think about it. Most adults can tie their shoes without a second thought. When you’re two, however, you’re still reciting ‘make a loop, pass it through, and pull!” Almost any person can reach this level of skill via one simple step: practice. For writers, that means writing, then rewriting, and then rewriting what you already re-wrote. When you start to get it right the first time, requiring fewer and fewer rewrites, you’re passing over from conscious to unconscious competence.

There’s actually a final stage, simply called ‘Mastery.’ I doubt it needs much explanation and we all know who these people are: the writers that go beyond the suggested guidelines of good writing to a whole other level––a place that the rest of us just stare at with envy. Not everyone can master a given skill, whether it’s writing, pro sports, music, or art. Blessed are the few that take their craft to a whole other level. They all have one thing in common, however: they all had to pass through the other phases first.

From one lifelong student to another, I invite you to find yourself on the writing ladder of competence and get climbing. ☺