Good News! Writing Does Get Easier!

When Does Writing Get Easier? The 4 Steps to Mastery

Good News! Writing Does Get Easier!“When does writing get easier?” This is one of the most common questions writers have asked me throughout my career. The bad news is that, all these years, I’ve been giving the wrong answer. The good news is that the right answer is pretty fantastic.

In years past, when people asked me this question, I was as truthful as I knew how to be. I would look at my own struggles, my own doubts, and I would have to tell them:

Sorry, it doesn’t actually ever get any easier. Enjoy that first book, because it only gets harder from there.

Cue stunned silence and wall-eyed stares. (And me shrugging awkwardly and apologetically.)

But here’s the irony. Everybody who has ever asked me that question was asking the wrong person. I was struggling down in the trenches, trying to get my little brain around very big concepts, trying to wrangle the infinity of grand stories and themes into my very finite skill set.

I may have been a little farther down Beginner Road than some of the people who asked me this question, but I was still a Beginner. I didn’t understand story theory or structure. I could only fumble through explanations of what made certain stories work or not.

In short, I didn’t have a clue.

But in the years that have followed, I think I can say I’ve started to get a clue or two, and this year, those clues have culminated in a very interesting new mountain peak. Frankly, it’s a mountain peak I didn’t know existed. No one ever told me it existed (or, if they did, I laughed at the whole idea and promptly forgot about it).

But I’m here to encourage you that it does exist, and it’s name is: The Place Where Writing Gets Easier Because You Actually Get It.

The Myth of the Suffering Writer

Raise your hand if you love quotes about how hard writing is. Here’s one I posted myself a few months ago:

Writers, as a whole, embrace the difficulties of writing with good-natured and self-deprecating irony. We simply love it when it our fellow authors—especially established and acclaimed authors—talk about how hard writing is. It makes us feel better. If it’s hard for even Stephen King and William Faulkner, well, then, we must not be doing so badly ourselves.

  • The wordcraft is hard.
  • The storytelling is hard.
  • The “rules” are hard.
  • The sharing of our deepest selves is hard.

One of my favorite quotes has always been Ernest Hemingway’s:

We are all apprentices in a craft no one ever masters.

Talk about taking off the pressure! If even Papa never felt like he mastered writing, then certainly I don’t have to worry about it. If it’s hard, well then, that’s as it should be. Now, excuse me while I fortify my upper lip, make some more coffee, and go suffer for the next couple decades.

All of these feelings are absolutely, utterly, 100% true. There’s a reason you resonate so strongly with these declarations of difficulty, and that reason is that writing is hard—your writing, my writing, Papa’s writing.

But don’t for one minute believe this is the whole picture.

Just because you will never write a perfect story does not mean you will not consistently attain certain levels of mastery. Just because writing sometimes feels like running blind through a dark forest does not mean someday you the sun won’t rise and your eyes won’t open. Just because writing doesn’t make a lick of sense in the beginning doesn’t mean it won’t make sense in the end. And just because it’s hard as heartbreak right now doesn’t mean it will never get easier.

Writing is only ever hard for one reason: because you don’t yet know what you know.

The 4 Stages of Learning How to Write

An oft-quoted (and misquoted) Arabic proverb shares the following four levels of mastery:

Arabic Proverb

Each of these stages represents a corresponding level of difficulty and mastery. In the early stages, we encounter greater difficulty because we have less mastery. In the later stages, we are able to handle greater technical difficulties with greater ease because we have greater mastery.

In short, being a writer does get easier, not because the writing itself gets easier (it doesn’t), but because your capacity to manage the difficulties grows exponentially—if you’re willing to embrace the possibilities, endure the difficulties while they last, and reject the misconceptions that mastery is impossible.

Let’s take a look at each of the four stages.

Stage #1: You Don’t Know, and You Don’t Know That You Don’t Know

A few months ago, in a post about “The 7 Stages of Being a Writer,” I talked about how the first step many of us take as writers is mistakenly believing we’re “writing geniuses”—when, in all likelihood, we… weren’t. This overestimation of abilities (or sometimes not so much an overestimation as a complacency) also corresponds with first stage of knowledge: not knowing that you don’t know.

Comparatively, this is a pretty blissful stage. A lovely lack of objectivity about your work gives you rose-colored glasses. Your stories are marvelous. Your writing is sublime. Basically, you’re in love. You’ve just discovered writing, and it’s thoroughly amazing. You can’t imagine life without this powerful and endorphic high.

If you’ve already moved past this, it can be hard not to just roll your eyes at others who are still enjoying this delusionally delirious phase (which is probably symptomatic of the fact that you inwardly cringe whenever you remember your own naïvety in this stage).

This is actually a very important and extremely healthy phase. If your first experience as a writer was to be overwhelmed by the infinity of everything you don’t know about writing, you probably would never have written that first word.

Instead, you’re given the gift of early ignorance. You get to play, to have fun, to experiment—with absolutely zero pressure to be better than you are. That’s why writing that very first (awful) first draft is often one of the best writing experiences you’ll ever have. That’s why I used to tell people to enjoy that first draft, because once you start to know things, there’s no going back.

Stage #2: You Don’t Know, and You Know That You Don’t Know

Welcome to the Pit of Despair.

In the same way the Second Act is a place of confusion, cognitive dissonance, and great struggle for your protagonist, the middle two stages of writing mastery are the hardest. This is where you start really appreciating it when Hemingway says things like:

There's nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.

At this stage, perhaps after receiving a critique of your writing, you begin to realize maybe you have a thing or two million to learn. At first, you take it in stride. But it can quickly become overwhelming. There’s just so much to learn about writing, and no matter how much you learn, you just never quite seem to be able to juggle it all.

It’s kind of like Barney Fife trying to teach the town drunk Otis Campbell how to stand at attention. Something is always sticking out in the wrong place.

But not to worry. The “suffering” in this stage is largely the result of your very good taste. Your conscious knowledge and your practiced skills aren’t quite up to snuff yet, but you know that. In an interview in the March 2017 Writer, Ruth Ozeki remembered:

Ruth Ozeki

Much of the self-flagellation we inflict on ourselves is the result of just this. We have a deep subconscious understanding of what a story should be, but we lack the conscious understanding to actually make it happen. This is the part where we feel like we’re running blind through the dark forest (whoops—smack!—ran into another tree we didn’t even know was there).

Ursula Le Guin explained:

Ursula Le Guin

This is easily the most difficult of all the writing stages, if only because it can be so difficult to judge your progress. Often, it seems you’re making no headway at all—which can lead you to believe this must be it. Writing is clearly an endlessly masochistic endeavor, and the best we can do is just reconcile ourselves to a lifetime of stumbling around in the woods and hoping we’ll occasionally catch a firefly.

It’s true some writers will never get past this stage, but you do not have to stop here.

Stage #3: You Know, But You Don’t Know That You Know

It isn’t enough to just write and hope you’ll get better (although you undoubtedly will). You must also be constantly studying to expand your understanding. Don’t settle for understanding your stories; seek the greater understanding of Story as a whole.

When you do this, new horizons begin to open before you. Slowly, almost magically, good things start to happen. You don’t know how, but your writing is actually starting to be pretty good. You write one good book, hold your breath for a bit, not daring to believe it could happen again so soon, but it does! Two good books in a row!

Your hard work in Stage #2 is starting to pay off. Your knowledge is growing, and you are slowly beginning to step into a mastery of your craft.

Still, things are rough. You’re experiencing a lot of doubt. Your story seems really good. You believe in it. Most of your readers like it. But… you don’t know it’s good. The most sensible explanation would seem to be you’re regressing to the unobjective delusions of Stage #1. Best not to be too optimistic. Better go look up some more writing quotes from your fellow miserables. Oh, wait, here’s some:

 

Writers Love Misery

Okay, enough wallowing.

You think you’ve reverted to an inability to be objective? Well, you have. But there’s a difference. Instead of being unable to recognize how bad your writing is, now you’re failing to recognize how good it’s becoming.

Your writing still isn’t perfect, by any means. Some of your doubts aren’t delusions at all, but rather signs of your growing story awareness. In fact, the greatest challenge of this stage is a refusal to trust the accuracy of your story senses.

All through Stage #2, you had it drilled into your brain that you didn’t know a thing, that you couldn’t trust your knowledge. Now, it’s time to start unlearning that. This isn’t, however, a conscious choice you make. Make it too soon, and you will revert to Stage #1’s determined ignorance. You will know you are entering this stage, as you feel your power growing (muahahahaha!) and tentatively begin to embrace it.

Stage #4: You Know, and You Know That You Know

Welcome to a brave new world.

This is that land most of us don’t even know exists when we start writing. It’s not a land where writing is easier. Not at all. It’s a land where writing is far more complex than we ever imagined. But it’s also a land where the juggling act of early questions and skills seems easy thanks to our new mastery.

Mastery is multi-faceted. It doesn’t mean you write perfect stories. It doesn’t mean words of fire and destiny spark from your fingertips to your keyboard every time you sit down.

What it does mean is that you have reached a place of harmony between your subconscious understanding of story and your conscious understanding. Now, when your imagination says, “This is what I want to do!,” your conscious brain confidently agrees, “And this is how we’re going to do it!”

You’re still walking through the forest, dodging trees. But not only has the sun risen over the horizon, you’ve also opened your eyes. The forest holds many surprises yet—many glens and streams you’ve never explored, many creatures you’ve never met. But like an experienced woodsman, you’re now confident in your ability to meet what comes.

You’re not suffering anymore. You’re centered. You’re at peace. The difficulties still come, but now they are challenges to be enjoyed because you no longer fear they may overwhelm your inadequate skill set. You’ve fought your battles, you’ve earned your laurels, you’ve come of age.

You were always a writer. Now you’re an author.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What do you currently find most difficult about writing? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Garrett says:

    Truth be told, writing is like any other career path with its ups and downs and constant learning. If you look at professional athletes and read their biographies, they struggle with the same inadequacies of themselves; their own inner voice of doubt at their skills and abilities. Like any profession, the harder you work and apply yourself, the more you learn, the better you become. This all seems obvious, but when you’re in the ‘trenches’ it’s hard to be objective! I really enjoyed this post K.M. It’s not very often we get encouragement in this field of work and it’s important to hear 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I agree. We see the same patterns over and over again in so many areas of life. It brings great validation to the worthwhileness of keeping at our goals.

  2. Damien Absher says:

    Very good article. I’ve learned a lot by reading your blogs. I think I’m in stage 2 but my wife insists that I’m on stage 3. I’ve submitted a short short story to a competition, too bad I won’t know the results until October. My editor liked it. Most of the people who read my work like it. I’ve only received one really negative comment on writing. Thank you for your advice on outlining, characters arches and tips on do’s and don’ts. I’ve not red all of your articles but I’ve def read enough to have learned a thing or two.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      At the end of the day, which “stage” you’re in is really just academic. The practicalities are the same no matter what: just keep writing. 🙂

  3. Dave Ryan says:

    Another very enlightening and high-quality post that doesn’t pull punches. I feel so lucky to have found your blog a year ago to make my journey just a little wiser! Thank you for what you do!

  4. Max Woldhek says:

    I’d say I’m firmly in stage 2 at the moment. I’ve written two books now (just got done with the second draft of the second book), and there’s an ever-increasing list of things I realize I need to get better at. It does help, I’ve found, when stressing over How The Heck Am I Supposed To Learn All This, to remind oneself of the progress one has made, of the accomplishments even the Goblin of Discouragement, nasty little blighter that he is, can’t make you forget. I know now that I can write first drafts, stories of almost a hundred thousand words, and then rewrite them, sometimes drastically so (the second draft of my second book shares maybe 10.000 words with the first draft – everything else was written from scratch).

    When I look back to September 2015, when I first sat down to begin the first draft of my first book, knowing nothing of outlining, structuring or character development, I can say to myself, “damn, I’ve learned a lot.” And not even that blasted goblin can take that away from me.

    Ps. I suppose a literal answer to the question would be: when you’ve written enough.
    No, really. When writing the second draft of my second book, I suddenly realized I’d gotten much faster at typing. 😛

  5. I would say I am at Stage 2, I definitely know I still have a lot to learn and these posts certainly help! I always used to get what seemed like a really great idea and dive in only to end up hitting a wall and giving up on the story. Now I have another idea but this time I’m outlining it. Still in the ‘what if’ ing stage as I call it. I think I’m driving my husband crazy, or he thinks I’ve gone crazy, when I spend a lot of time wandering around muttering to myself.

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