Sunday, 25 October 2009

stages of competence, the dunning-kruger effect, and what they mean for writers

Struggling today, so I'll cheer myself up with one of my favourite topics: stages of competence and the Dunning-Kruger effect. (I like this topic because it tells me that the worse I feel about my writing, the more awesome I secretly am.)

The stages of competence theory states that when you try to learn a new skill, you progress through four predictable stages:
  1. Unconscious incompetence. You're bad at the new skill, but because you're so new, you lack appreciation of just how bad you are.
  2. Conscious incompetence. You're starting to learn the new skill, and you're beginning to appreciate that you're not very good at it.
  3. Conscious competence. You've learned to be good at the new skill if you work very hard.
  4. Unconscious competence. You've internalised your new skill to the point where it's second nature.
Let's apply this theory to a skill we might be learning ... like, say, writing.

You start out as a wide-eyed newbie. You've banged out a first draft and you think it's the best thing since sliced bread. Because you don't understand the mechanics of writing, you can't see why your work is bad (unconscious incompetence). In your puppy-like enthusiasm, you join a bunch of critique groups and throw your work up, expecting everyone to see awesomeness - just like you do.

Except nobody thinks it's awesome. You have the sobering experience of realising that your work may not be very good at all (conscious incompetence). Actually, it's terrible.

How do you get better? What is better, exactly? Will you ever get to stage 3, conscious competence? How long will it take?

You've entered the yawning chasm of stage 2.

Similarly, the Dunning-Kruger effect states that the unskilled lack the awareness to know just how bad they are - so they consistently and strongly overrate themselves in that skill. Conversely, the highly skilled underrate themselves. They know how much they have still to learn.

Morals of the story:
  1. If a harsh light has dawned and you now see that your work is terrible, you've moved up a stage of competence. Yes, it hurts.
  2. If you lack confidence in your work, you're in a better position to improve than someone who thinks their work is perfect.
  3. When I tear my hair out and swear never to write again, it secretly means I'm awesome. Really.


  1. Great post!
    This is so true. I am so 'painfully' new to the game...

  2. Awesome post, Para! It's honestly true... if you think you're HORRIBLE, all it means is that you have a good knowledge of what you're going to have to do to improve. You've seen the light, now you just have to walk towards it!

  3. I've never thought I was horrible because I realized that the garbage I'm writing is just a rough draft. I have plenty of chances to re-write and improve upon my words.

    I don't lack confidence in my work or myself. I feel like if you lack confidence in your work, you're not going to have a desire to improve because you lack confidence. What you need to realize is that you're not perfect and you need to have the confidence that you can improve. That's what I have. I'm confident I can improve. No writer is perfect. It's impossible.