The 6 Stages of Competence – How to Assess Where You Are In Your Journey to be a Great Writer

Please Note: This only applies if you want to be a Great Writer. If your primary aim is something else, such as Becoming Famous, or Becoming Rich, then this post does not apply. Please read this post only if you want to become a very very very good or even great writer

In this post we will cover how to assess how good of a writer you are

The 4 Stages of Competence

  1. Unconscious Incompetence
  2. Conscious Incompetence
  3. Conscious Competence
  4. Unconscious Competence

The 2 Advanced Stages of Competence

  1. Supreme Competence with No Humility/No Recognition
  2. Supreme Competence with Humility/ Recognition

Let’s go through each of these 6 Stages

Unconscious Incompetence

This is the stage where you suck as a writer, and yet are convinced that you are an amazing writer

The Rule: The less a person know about what it takes to be a good writer, the more likely it is that the person thinks they are already a very good writer

Most new people coming into writing think it’s pretty easy and assume that they can very quickly become a very good writer

  1. Mostly this is young authors (20s, 30s) who don’t realize it takes decades of writing to become a great writer
  2. Sometimes this is people who are very good in another profession, and think that it magically gives them the abilities of Wodehouse and Proust
  3. In some cases it can be people who figured out a good marketing strategy or some marketing ‘trick’ and just ignore the writing aspect (believing they were born great writers)
  4. It is rare, and does happen, that some one writes a book for which there is huge demand, and even before perfecting their craft they become very successful. These authors, if not forthright with themselves, start assuming that their success is due to their writing skills
  5. Authors in the ‘Unconscious Incompetence’ stage make their ‘unconscious incompetence’ apparent by skimping on/ignoring critical aspects such as editing and proofreading. Just the way that they think they are automatically very good writers, they also think their first or second draft is automatically perfect and doesn’t need rewriting or editing or proofreading

Because Books is a tough and punishing industry for people in the Unconscious Incompetence stage, you will often see such authors flame out magnificently. Their vision of themselves as ‘the next great Author’ clashes with the reality that they know very little about writing. That results in an identity crisis/cognitive dissonance

Most authors will at this point (when they clash into the Cliffs of Reality) give up on writing

A few will realize that they are actually not very good writers, and they need to work on their writing skills, and will start working on becoming good writers

Conscious Incompetence

This is the stage where you realize you suck as a writer

It’s a very difficult and humbling period

  1. You realize that most of your early work is brutally bad
  2. You realize that you know only 1% or 2% of everything there is to know about being a good writer
  3. You begin to see ways in which you can improve
  4. You will often have a crisis of confidence where you wonder whether you should remain a writer
  5. You will also question yourself (i.e. your very identity and raison d’etre)

During this stage, the majority of people will drop out

Those who remain will drastically adjust their attitude to being a writer. They will start thinking of it as a craft and as a business

Conscious Competence

Out of the people who decide to stick with it, roughly a quarter will get through the struggles and become good writers

This is the stage of Conscious Competence

  1. You can write well now
  2. It does, however, take all your conscious energy and effort to write well. Many times you will find yourself completely drained after a writing session
  3. You have to constantly be focusing on, and thinking of, every aspect of your writing
  4. You have ability and yet you do not have ‘flow’ (the ability to just go into a trance and create beautiful work non-stop)
  5. You have to constantly be aware of every little aspect, if you want to produce good work. Think of it as – having to have all the lights in your brain on, to make sure the work produced is good

Conscious Competence is a very encouraging stage – because now you can create very good work

Conscious Competence is a very frustrating stage – because it takes 100% of your energy and effort. It is a very deliberate style of creation

Unconscious Competence

A small percentage of authors who reach Conscious Competence, are able to keep improving and reach the stage of Unconscious Competence

  1. Everything flows very naturally now – you go into trance states where you just forget everything for hours or days and just create amazing work
  2. You do not have to be ‘thinking’ about what you are doing
  3. Your first draft is as polished as what your fifth draft used to be
  4. Your work quality seems to keep improving with every new book you write
  5. You begin to understand exactly what your editor means when he/she suggests changes
  6. The entire process is internalized – it’s INSIDE of you
  7. The entire process is very smooth. You have almost no internal struggle. You are completely congruent in what you write

This is an amazing stage – nearly all the work you produce is amazing. You produce it almost effortlessly. Writing energizes you, instead of draining you. Your writing speed and output increase greatly

This is a very dangerous stage – If you start thinking ‘this is it’, then you will be stuck forever in ‘effortlessly very good’ stage and never reach true greatness

Supreme Competence with No Humility/Recognition

Out of the people who reach Unconscious Competence, a very small number, will realize there is something ‘higher’ and push through and reach ‘Supreme Competence’

  1. It has all the characteristics of Unconscious Competence mixed with an almost painful focus on excellence
  2. You demand a lot more of yourself
  3. You produce work that goes from being ‘very good’ to ‘truly great’
  4. Basically, you are a Maestro, a wizard composer, a grand magician. Words are at your command now – morphing into powerful things that can create entire worlds at your bidding
  5. You realize you are painfully short of time

Hand in hand with this Supreme Competence comes a sense of ‘I know everything now’

This is the dangerous side of Supreme Competence – everyone else seems mediocre in comparison. Everything seems banal and unrefined. Only your own work seems worthy

You are, for lack of a better comparison, the best martial artist in the world. Unbeatable. Close to immortal

At this point, you can either revel in Supreme Competence and enjoy feeling you are better than every other author


You can reassess and push yourself more and reach the next higher stage

Supreme Competence with Humility/Recognition

A portion of authors who reach Supreme Competence will have their ‘there is no spoon’ moment. The moment when they meet a master who can move things with his mind

At that moment they will realize that their lack of humility on reaching Supreme Competence was actually them hiding from the reality that there is always a higher level. That we know only 5% or 7% of all there is to know. Even in Supreme Competence, we still have 93% of our craft left to learn

This leads to reaching a stage of Constantly Improving and being in Supreme Competence that includes becoming better every day at what you do

In this stage there is a certain humility, a certain recognition of how much more there is left to achieve and learn



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