It’s not only how you write but also what you write that matters.
Many new writers start with an illusory superiority. Naïve as I was, I expected my first article to be a hit. Journaling, academic work, and well-rated high-school essays made me overestimate my writing ability. Together with all the other writers who start with overconfidence, I was on top of what social psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger label the ‘Mount Stupid.’
According to their research, incompetent people overestimate their own competence and, failing to sense a discrepancy between their performance and what is desirable, see no need to learn or improve. New writers know so little, they fail to see what they don’t know.
“We start at a disadvantage for several reasons. One is that when we’re incompetent, we tend to overestimate our competence and see little reason to change,” cognitive researchers Roediger & McDaniel write about this phenomenon. “To become more competent, we must learn to recognize competence when we see it in others, become more accurate judges of what we ourselves know and don’t know, adopt learning strategies that get results, and find objective ways to track our progress.”
Many new writers never get to this point. They quit after the disappointment of a bad performing first article. Or they gave up because of the daunting number of skills neccessary to become a prolific writer. While overcoming the first, I almost quit because of the latter. Comparing oneself to Niklas Göke, Michael Thompson, Ali Mese, or Megan Holstein can feel demotivating.
Yet, the few new writers that move past this point embark on an exciting learning path. Writing is one of the rare professions that offer a ticket to life-long learning. Here are the two learning curves that make writing worth mastering:
Curve 1: Learning how to articulate your ideas
Writing includes much more than writing. It’s not as simple as having an idea, writing it down, publishing, and watch it reach millions of readers. New writers often fail to acknowledge the micro-steps that are neccessary to move from idea generation to a well-articulated article.
Items on the first learning curve help new writers to organize their thoughts and pack them into a neat, coherent package:
- content consumption as sources of inspiration
- researching and applying for publications
- a solid idea-to-paper process
- writing clickable, non-clickbaity headlines
- choosing article pictures
- writing powerful introductions
- engaging the reader using an appropriate style
- editing articles including proofreading, writing flow, word choice, and grammar
- formatting the article according to respective publication style guides
While the number of items might feel overwhelming, countless guides can help to gain mastery. For example, Cynthia Marinakos offers excellent advice on headline writing, Niklas Göke on the skill of captivating introductions, and Ali Mese provides a useful grammar cheat sheet.
How fast you move on this learning curve depends on your mindset and your discipline. After reading six books and taking three writing online courses, I’ve noticed a recurring statement: the only way to improve your writing is to write.
An open, learning mindset helps to digest and apply everything you learn from people more experienced than you and reach out to people you look up to. But a daily writing praxis is what makes you hone your craft.
Your speed on the first learning curve depends on mindset and consistency.
Curve 2: Becoming an expert in your writing areas
If you want it or not, you become an expert in the topics you write about. When you write about personal finance, you’ll know your way around money management. If you write about attention fragmentation, you might be able to recite a list of ten things you can do immediatly to minimize technological distractions.
When we write, we elaborate. “Elaboration is the process of giving new material meaning by expressing it in your own words and connecting it with what you already know,” cognitive researchers define. And elaboration, as this study showed, is one of the most effective learning strategies.
And as you become an expert on the topics you write about, it’s important to make a conscious choice. When you accept a writing client you don’t want to represent, you’ll soon find yourself in cognitive dissonance, meaning your actions don’t match your beliefs. You’ll represent something you no longer want to represent.
Nicolas Cole included a great tip for this learning curve in his current book on online writing. “In your first six months of writing online, you should be less concerned with “establishing” yourself and more focused on “discovering” yourself,” he wrote. Once you know what you enjoy writing about and see the data from what people want to read, you can move on.
“If you start writing about marketing strategies, but data tells you it’s your stories about being an angel investor people love reading most, you should pay attention to that. If you start writing sci-fi, but you discover it’s actually your historical fiction people are flocking to, data is trying to tell you something. If you start writing poetry, but you find your morning meditations are what get dozens of people to comment and engage with your writing, what are you going to do? Keep writing poetry? Once data enters the equation, this is where the “Who Do I Want To Be?” conversation gets interesting.”
— Nicolas Cole in The Art and Business of Online Writing
Writing is a life-long learning journey. It’s one of the rare jobs you (eventually) get paid for acquiring new knowledge.
Once you move up on both learning curves, writing will feel more natural. At the same time, one curve doesn’t go without the other. If you’re great at articulating your ideas but no expert in the topics you write about, you do not realize your full writing potential. The opposite is true as well: If you are a topic expert but don’t know how to articulate what you want to say, there’s no way you can get through to your readers.
To move from a new writer to a prolific writer, we must watch out for both learning curves. Fostering a growth mindset, learning from the best, experimenting, and deciding on a writing genre helps.
Whatever you’re doing, keep in mind: writing is one of those rare jobs where you get paid for learning. So, it’s worth doing the work it takes to improve your craft. Cambridge Editors’ Blog puts it best:
“Writing takes hard work and practice, just like everything else. If you want to be a good writer you need to put in the effort, plain and simple. And that means anyone can be a writer so long as they are willing to put in the work. It’s a comforting thought.”