Four Stages of the Writer

My friend, Paul (@PaulRienzo), has been teaching us about the four stages of learning.  As Paul laid this information out, I saw so many parallels to the journey of being a writer. Everything you see below I learned from Paul.

We recognize these stages when kids learn something, like riding a bike.

You remember learning to ride a bike, right?

But we don’t allow ourselves these stages as adults.

Stage 1

High Enthusiasm Low Competence

The first stage of the journey is high enthusiasm, but low competence. You can spot these writers easily. We just love to write. We think about how we are going to write best sellers, and be famous. We dream of appearing on Oprah, and having people come up to us, teary-eyed and ask us to sign their cherished copy of our novel.

We get so jacked up!  We start reading all the blogs and books on craft. Maybe we even take a class. We look at famous authors like Patterson, King, Amanda Hocking, etc. and think ‘Yeah, I want to be able to do that!’

But competence just isn’t there. One of my favorite sayings comes from a radio talk show host, Colin Cowherd. He says ‘the worst thing about people who don’t get it, is – they don’t get that they don’t get it.’

That’s where we are in Stage 1. We are so incompetent, we don’t know we’re incompetent. We haven’t traveled the learning journey yet. Someone has to come along and tell us ‘dude, you just don’t know what you are doing.’

Stage 2

Low Enthusiasm Low Competence

This is where our journey starts to hurt. We have left the ‘new toy’ stage. Our enthusiasm and excitement begins to wane, and our competence level becomes clear, even to us.  Some of the lessons on craft start to sink in. We start to read a little more widely and soon we realize just how different our writing is from professional’s writing.


If we are lucky, we have found a safe writers group to give us those first painful critiques, and they do it in an honest, yet gentle, affirming (dare I say loving?) way.

Sometimes we hit stage two after we’ve given our novel to friend and asked that oh so loaded question, ‘so, whadya think?’

(yes, whadya is a word in the deep south)

See, we already thought we were pros. The publishing industry does its very best to ensure the only writers we see are the most advanced ones, so we don’t have an appeciation for just how hard it is to produce good writing. We didn’t even realize there was a journey to walk.

This is the fall. Stage 1 is taking off like a rocket. Stage 2 is when we come crashing back to earth. We wonder if we will ever be a good writer. We question if we’re wasting our time even trying to learn to be a writer. We doubt if we should ever write another word again. I can’t begin to guess how many writing careers have ended in Stage 2, and how many books have died in Stage 2.

But you can’t reach Stage 3, until you go survive Stage 2.

Stage 2 to the Stage 3 Crash

How do we make it from Stage 2 to Stage 3? How we come of Stage 2 determines everything about where our journey goes. The instinct to retreat is strong. We just want to get back to Stage 1. It used to be so easy. We used to be so excited. Where did that go?

This is where real change happens. This is where real learning happens. You have to make the turn to get to Stage 3, but how. You are out of energy, out of excitement, out of gas.

You need a slingshot. When Apollo 13 needed to get back to earth, they didn’t have enough fuel. They used something called a gravity assisted maneuver to basically a slingshot around the moon, using the gravity of the larger mass (the moon) to get them home.

We have to slingshot off of something to make the turn from failure to growth. If we are all alone, it’s virtually imopssible to make the turn. We need that larger mass. Community, like we have at Saucy Ink can be that. Accountability can be your larger mass. Walking with someone just a little farther ahead of you, like a mentor, can also slingshot you into Stage 3.

I had a Stage 2/Stage 3 crash when I submitted my first Dragon story. I was lucky that Paul had already taught me this truth so when the crash came, I recognized it for what it was. I had Saucy Ink, and they were gracious enough to allow me to withdraw it so I could submit it again. I will be forever thankful to the people in the group who listened to my frustrations, and then encouraged me along the way.

Stage 3

Growing Confidence Growing Competence

The enthusiasm of Stage 1 has become confidence in Stage 3. Enthusiasm is excitement without proof. Confidence is excitement built upon learning. Stage 3 is where we start moving again. Competence begins to operate. We have walked through the failure moment, and come out on the other side.

Stage 4

High Confidence and Competence with Ownership

The lesson has been learned and now it is part of our life. We own it. We know we really are a good writer. That burning need to be validated subsides. We know how to write a good story. We write from confidence, and now our voice shines through clearly.

I’m not sure I’m made it all the way into Stage 3 yet. This is a journey after all. The crazy part is, as a writer, this isn’t a ‘one and done’ journey. When you get to Stage 4, it often just means you are about to start back at Stage 1 of the next lesson you need to learn as a writer. The most important aspect is to keep your larger mass always in sight, and never, ever give up.

Just listen to this kid:

Do you see yourself on the journey? Where are you at?

If you would like to hear the original teaching from Paul, you can listen to his podcast here:

Note: This post is part of the 31-post Ultimate Blog Challenge. I will be posting 31 times during the month of July, 2012. Since that is a ton of content, I made a page on the blog where you can see all my entries.