How competent a writer are you?

I wonder if the management/business model of levels of competence applies to writers? The basic premise is that as you travel on the journey from novice to expert, you pass through four stages of competence. These are:

Level 1: Unconscious incompetence, ie you don’t know, and you don’t even know that you don’t know.

Level 2: Conscious incompetence, ie you still don’t know, but at least you know that you don’t know.

Level 3: Conscious competence, ie you know that you know

Level 4: Unconscious competence, ie you are so good at what you do that you don’t even have to think about it: you just do it automatically.

Strive to be better! Photo by prayitno http://www.flickr.com/photos/34128007@N04/Now, it’s that last stage that sits uneasily with me as far as writing is concerned (and perhaps even in general). Because it seems to me that unless you are innately gifted you can’t reach stage 4 and write stuff that is actually pleasurable to read.

Another way of saying this is that I think unconscious competence can be faked. I’m thinking in particular of at least one “content mill” which specifies the exact number of words you have to have in the headline, how many in the first paragraph, how many in the second paragraph, plus quite a lot more rules about what sort of words should be in the headline and so on. I've come across bloggers who recommend this sort of thing too.

Now, I suppose you could get into the swing of writing in this formulaic way, and become so good at it that you would reach the heady heights of Level 4. And I also suppose that if you were able to pack useful information into your articles, you would have an audience for them. But would your writing actually be enjoyable to read?

Would such a formulaic approach ever produce such gems as this, for example:

“It was the kind of wind that seemed to peel the flesh off your bones and come back for the marrow.”

That was from the pen of sports writer Hugh McIlvanney, and is just one example of brilliant writing that you would want to read over and over again.

For myself, I can ‘bash out’ (as my wife so charmingly puts it) articles fairly quickly, and people tell me they like reading them. But I am always striving to become a better writer, as even a cursory glance at my credit card bill would prove.

In fact, to me, the very idea of being in a state of unconscious competence suggests stagnation. Much better, I think, to continually feel there is another pinnacle to reach.

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