We all know how we’d like to feel when we write.
We want to be transcendent. We want to craft breathtakingly compelling content that brings us piles of comments and eager new clients. We want words to flow from our fingers and magically appear on the page, dashing genius from our brows after four hours of taking dictation from gods on high.
We just don’t want to do the work it takes to get there.
That’s the problem with writers.
I can’t tell you how many people in my writing course, Damn Fine Words, tell me that they want to use the class to elevate their writing. To master it. To bend words to their will.
They want to be completely unique. They want to write something new and exciting. They want to find a voice that’s all their own. They want to succeed.
There’s nothing wrong with that ambition. In fact, I encourage it. But it’s often painfully clear that some people are trying to tackle a level of mastery that’s far above their current capabilities.
They’re trying to skip the first step – the boring one, the one where you have to learn the basics and fundamentals. They want to cut to the head of the line, where they get to try cool new things.
Here’s the truth about writing:
There are no shortcuts. You can’t leapfrog your way to mastery.
You have to put in the work.
The 4 Stages of Mastery
There are supposed to be four stages of mastery, with rather boring names: unconscious incompetence, conscious incompetence, conscious competence, and unconscious competence.
There’s also a Japanese word for these stages: shuhari.
In writing, the first stage of unconscious incompetence is when you’re taking a stab at it but have no idea what you’re doing. It’s the stage when you show your work to a friend and that person hesitantly says, “It’s . . . really interesting.” It’s when people keep telling you that you need to edit or rewrite or make things clearer, but you don’t quite know what they mean.
The first stage is when you suck but don’t know you suck. That’s unconscious incompetence.
Shuhari doesn’t acknowledge this stage, and it shouldn’t, because this is a stage where you’re not making progress toward writing mastery. You’re standing apart, gazing at it and dreaming up scenarios in which you make the journey required to achieve mastery.
But you’re not making that journey. You’re just pretending.
Shuhari is when you stop pretending and start actually putting in the work.
Shu correlates with conscious incompetence. This is the stage where you’ll learn the fundamentals of your craft – how to put together a clear sentence, subject-verb agreement, the difference between an adjective and an adverb, why you say “a small red light” instead of “a red small light.”
In painting, this category would include figure drawing and composition technique. In music, it would include learning to sight-read and play chords. This stage of mastery teaches you the traditional wisdom behind your craft, and gives you a foundation on which to stand.
It should be much, much longer than you think it should be.
To achieve the ultimate end, that transcendent state where you create beautiful writing without having to think for a moment, you need to be able to perform the fundamentals in your sleep. You shouldn’t even have to think about them. They should be as natural as breathing.
It takes a lot of practice to achieve this level of writing mastery.
And for the most part, it’s very difficult to get there alone. When you practice at the shu stage, you need a teacher. You need someone to say, “This is right, but this is wrong,” and to have the necessary knowledge to explain why, in a way that you understand.
Ha correlates with conscious competence. It’s when you break with tradition and start experimenting with your own style.
This stage can be an incredible amount of fun. You’ll mimic your peers and the writers you admire most to see what you can use in your work and what doesn’t work for you. You’ll find a voice, and you’ll find it by trying on twenty different voices, rejecting eighteen of them, and blending the last two.
This stage of mastery requires that you intelligently break the rules that became second nature in the first stage.
What do I mean by intelligently? I mean you should understand exactly what the rules are for, and what they are meant to achieve. In the ha stage, you’re free to try achieving the same effect through different means.
When you’re a child, you’re taught to only cross the street when the light is green. As an adult, you know that if it’s two in the morning and there aren’t any cars around, you’re probably safe to break the rule and walk against the light. You know that the rule is there to keep everyone on the road safe – and you understand that the rule is moot if you’re the only person on the road.
The same goes for writing.
Take the example of the little red light. You may decide that you want to try out a writing style that reverses the traditional places of those two adjectives. You’ll say “the red little light” and “the three same things” and “the wool fuzzy sweater”.
This may work. It might not. It doesn’t matter. Ha is the stage where you experiment.
When you practice at the ha stage, you need peers. You need to imitate others and get ideas from their experiments. You need to surround yourself with other writers and try their styles on for size.
The ha stage can last for an entire career. It isn’t required that you achieve the last stage of mastery. In fact, most of the people I know with hugely successful online careers are still in the ha stage. I probably am myself.
But none of us would be here without spending years practicing shu.
Ri correlates with unconscious competence, and it’s the stage you hope to achieve: where you no longer need to think about technique or consider your personal style. You’ve practiced them so much that they’re as much a part of you as your own bones.
This is where you create as much as humanly possible, secure in your own wisdom.
Where Are You?
Many of you are reaching for the stars – trying to write in that transcendent stage of writing mastery where you don’t ever need to consider whether your work is good or bad. If you think you’re in this stage, but no one is flocking to see your masterwork, you’re probably not at the ri stage just yet.
A great many more of you probably think you’re in the ha stage. You’re trying to find your voice. You may even have experimented with the styles of other writers you admire. But if you don’t understand why your work isn’t coming out sounding like your heroes of prose, you’re probably not actually in the ha stage, either.
The vast majority of writers are in the shu stage. Unfortunately, and understandably, almost no one wants to be there.
No one wants to be a beginner. No one wants to practice the basics, the fundamentals. We all want to get out there and be geniuses from the get-go.
You can try that if you like. It won’t get you where you want to be, though.
Sometimes you need to swallow your ego and accept that you’re still a beginner – and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s the only way you’re ever going to take the first steps that bring you all the way to mastery.
How To Tell the Difference
- If you’re getting tons of traffic to your blog, but no one seems to want to share your work.
- If your peers consistently refuse your guest posts.
- If you consistently get edits that you don’t think are necessary – “What does she mean, make it more clear? I made it very clear!”
- If new clients come to your website but never buy anything or contact you for services.
- If your emails are opened and read, but no one clicks through.
- If you’ve heard the same reactions about your writing from friends and family again and again – and you can’t seem to change it in a way that makes them happy.
If any of these are true for you, it’s time to embrace the shu stage.
Find a teacher. Study the fundamentals. Practice them until you don’t make mistakes, even when you’re bone-tired and stressed. Practice more. Master the first stage.
And then fling yourself headlong toward ha. A lot of great stuff happens there.