Friday 31 May 2019

The Writer's 4 Stages of Learning

by Em Lynas
I'm a big fan of the Four Stages of Learning and I apply them to EVERYTHING, Life, Learning, Writing etc. 

They keep me on track, stop any feelings of being overwhelmed, help me keep a balance between the intensity of learning new skills and relaxing with old skills. I've talked about them before on the Slushpile but for those who have never heard of them, here they are:

Stage One
Unconscious Incompetence

I don't know what I don't know but I am going to... Write a book/learn to drive/start a relationship/take up skydiving etc

Stage Two
Conscious Incompetence.

I have had a reality check and I am learning what I don't know (which is taking much longer than I expected) so that I can... Write a book/learn to drive/start a relationship/take up skydiving etc

Stage Three
Conscious Competence

I know what I need to know and now I am going to practise applying it so that I can... Write a book/learn to drive/start a relationship/take up skydiving etc

Stage Four
Unconscious Competence.

At this stage I may have the impression that I'm an expert. I've reached the top of the learning curve and embedded the learning so I can... Write a book/learn to drive/start a relationship/take up skydiving etc
When I began writing I was obviously at Stage One. I had no idea what I needed to learn (lots). I also had no idea where to go for help. (SCBWI BI). I had no idea how steep (or how long) the learning curve was going to be but I went through the stages and, eventually, published a series of books with Nosy Crow.

So now I am at the beginning again. Writing a brand new thrill a minute, surprise a second, series. And I started thinking about the Four Stages and where I was with this new work because I feel I am right back down at Unconscious Incompetence in everything.

But that can't be right. I'm an author. I can write. I have proof! Look!

So, I've made a list to get a sense of perspective and hopefully a bit of confidence in the new stuff.

Things I am Unconsciously Incompetent at:

  • This new plot.
  • This Story.
  • Who the characters are.
  • Their motivations.
  • Their voices.
I still don't know what I don't know but as the story develops I will discover this and need to research the things I don't know such as the world I set my book in. Currently reading:

So there's a clue as to what's coming next, hopefully.

Things I am Consciously Incompetent at:

Writing the synopsis
Urgh! Yuck! Please no. Don't make me do it!

Verbally pitching
I recently attempted a verbal pitch to my agent, Amber Caraveo.
Me: blah blah blah
Agent Amber: Er ? Er.
Me: I'll write it down and send it.
Agent Amber: I think that's best.

The marketability triangle.

Nailing age group plus length plus subject matter is easier said than done and there are lots of rules about different lengths re- chapter books and middle grade books.

Time management.

  • Should I have a daily word counts and stick to it?
  • Should I have a time slot and stick to it?
  • Should I sit in the sunshine with my 'thinking face' on and tell everyone - this is WORK people - WORK!

I can't get the hang of formatting when compiling and switching to Word. The width doesn't match and the text disappears off the right hand side.

Ignoring the REAL BIG WORLD that is going crazy at the moment. I struggle to hide in my story away from the harm that is being done to the world.

Things I am Consciously Competent at:

Plotting using plotting cards.


  • Using the Hero's Journey as a base and (hopefully) disguising it.
  • Kicking the protagonist into Act 2.
  • Escalating the plot and story
  • Planning from the midpoint.
  • Kicking the protagonist into Act 3


  • Creating personalities.
  • Creating relationships.
  • Using idiolect.

I may be weird but I love writing the short pitch.
Em wants to write a book but her incompetence gets in the way. Can she crawl up the learning curve in time to meet the deadline? Of course she can!

Things I am Unconsciously Competent at:

The tools of the trade

  • Grammar
  • Punctuation.
  • Syntax

Analysis: I LOVE analysing mentor texts looking for:

  • Structure
  • Voice.
  • Characterisation.
  • Openings
  • Endings
  • Midpoints
Editing: I LOVE editing.

  • The big edit for structure.
  • The big edit for consistency of character and motivation.
  • The close edit for clarification.
  • Then the proof-reading - picking up those little things like - Twink Toadspit has six brothers and I've listed seven! That was a close call.

It's been a huge learning curve but luckily it was one step at a time over a few years so now I know, among lots of other stuff:

  • The norm for submitting
    • Font - Arial or Times New Roman, 12 p double spaced.
    • Layout - Don't indent first paragraph, indent the rest at .5cm
    • Write THE END so agent/editor knows for certain - that's it.
  • To BACK UP!
    • Whether that's on Dropbox, Google Drive, OneDrive, Memory Stick (Beware -some can deteriorate), emailing to myself, printing off.
  • How to create a website and blog.

So - are we always In Stage One: Unconscious Incompetence?
I think so. I'm published but I still devour the How To Books, I go to kidlit conferences, I sign up for courses, I attend critique groups.


Because I still don't know what I don't know and the authors, course leaders, conference keynotes, fellow critiquers might know what I don't know and the great thing about Kidlit authors is they will share what they DO know. Then I'll know it too. What a fabulous profession to be in.

Em Lynas is the author of The Witch School Series staring Daisy Wart aka Twinkle Toadspit and published by Nosy Crow.

*Reference from Wikipedia
Management trainer Martin M. Broadwell described the model as "the four levels of teaching" in February 1969.[1] Paul R. Curtiss and Phillip W. Warren mentioned the model in their 1973 book The Dynamics of Life Skills Coaching.[2] The model was used at Gordon Training International by its employee Noel Burch in the 1970s; there it was called the "four stages for learning any new skill".[3] Later the model was frequently (but incorrectly) attributed to Abraham Maslow, although the model does not appear in his major works.[4]


  1. Really enjoyed this post, Em, and had never heard of the Four Stage - though I recognise many, alas! - and that there's a similar process for each now book or project. Thanks!

    1. It's one of the most useful things I've ever come across for explaining the different emotions we go through while learning a task. Thete's quite a bit of panic at Stage 2! Or maybe that's just me.

  2. Superb! It's so important to remember how much we have learnt along the way, and used it and remembered it for next time, even if at times our knowledge & skills feel more like crutches as we stumble on. Good luck. And folk tales, hey? Nice one. x

    1. Yes, experimenting with the Storyteller voice. It's a lot of fun.

  3. Brilliant! Especially the verbal pitch ...

  4. I loved this! Yes, that verbal pitch is tricky. I'm going to a media conference in July and I've signed up for a session on pitching which I am completely dreading ...


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