Thursday, 12 July 2012

The Four Stages of Learning and What This Means In the Era of Self-Publishing

I am all for self-publishing. It gives writers a viable alternative when publishers say things like ‘We’d like to publish your work but...’

But it’s too risky.

But it’s too hard to market/we don’t know how to market it.

But it’s not fashionable right now. 

There are a lot of buts, but... the one thing they have in common is all these type of answers imply (or expressly state) the quality of the work is good, and there are other commercial considerations in play. We all know publishers have acted as gatekeepers in the past, and sometimes they were gate-keeping excellent work for business reasons, and self-publishing neatly solves this problem. 

If the publisher no longer acts as gatekeeper, for any issue, including quality control, it falls to the writer to act as their own gatekeeper for their own poor quality work – self-regulation is required.

Now I know what you’re likely to say next – but publishers do publish badly written books. There are a couple that spring to mind at the current time, and I bet you’re thinking their names right now.


50 Shades of Grey.

Both hugely popular books that, from a technical standpoint, aren’t all that brilliantly written. And yet they were published.

But there is just as much a business reason behind publishing these books as there is behind the excellently written books that weren’t published. Because a publisher is, first and foremost, a business. A commercial enterprise. We as writers, as artists, like to conveniently forget this fact when it suits us. But they are. And if you’re a self-publisher, you are now a business.

Usually what makes money is good books, and a good book is a well-written book with a good story. Excellent writing won’t make up for a bad story. But publishers also know that sometimes a really good story will make up for mediocre writing - although not really bad writing. And if you think either of those books is really badly written, go check out the first draft of a first book by someone who has just picked up a pen to write fiction for the first time, then come back and we’ll talk. I still remember my first book. It made Twilight look like a Pulitzer Prize winner.

So in the traditional model we get mostly well-written books and some mediocre books which, for reasons that are hard to finger, really set fire to the imagination of readers and go viral.

In the self-publishing model, each writer gets to decide what he or she will publish.

The problem with this is the Four Stages of Learning.

The Four Stages of Learning is a model for learning suggesting individuals are initially unaware of how little they know, or unconscious of their incompetence – in more colloquial terms ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’ which I’ve always considered to be a fairly inarguable piece of wisdom.  

Unconscious Incompetence
The first stage is when a person doesn’t understand how to do something, and doesn’t even know they should be doing it. If I go back to my very early days of writing, this includes just about everything. I had an idea about plot and characterisation, but I didn’t even know what POV stood for, never mind what they were, how they differed, or how to use them.

Sometimes this stage is characterised by the person denying the usefulness of a skill if it is pointed out to them. Again, an excellent example is POV. May new writers head-hop, and use defences like ‘But I want to know what everyone in the scene think’ or ‘But Stephen King does it’.

Well, I wish I could do what Stephen King does, but I can’t. Most of us can’t. Most of us never will.

At this level of ignorance, the person doesn’t even know enough about the skill (POV) to know why it’s important, or how to intelligently break the rules (like King does) or why intelligently breaking the rules is even different to just breaking through them like a bull at a gate.

Conscious Incompetence
The second stage begins when the person begins to realise there is something they need to know – and don’t. There is some self-awareness that the person’s work isn’t particularly great, and a writer is more likely to learn from their mistakes.

Conscious Competence
At the third stage, the person has learned how to do something, but the process is laborious and requires concentration. The skill may need to be enacted in conscious steps.

Unconscious Competence
At the fourth and final stage, the person is so good at the skill it has become ‘second nature’ and can be performed easily, or even while carrying out other tasks. The person may even be able to teach it to others.

So, what has this got to do with self-publishing? I believe it affects the quality of what is self-published.

Not many writers in the fourth stage will be self-publishing, except for business reasons. Most of these writers can (and will) be traditionally published – and in fact the process of getting traditionally published is a learning process in itself, equipping the writer with a thick skin. Not many writers in the second stage will self-publish either, because they are painfully aware of their own shortcomings and don’t wish to expose them to the light of public scrutiny.

Some writers from the third category may self-publish, some may be working to improve further (into stage four) before they publish under any model, and some will still be pursuing traditional publishing.

Which leaves us with the first stage. People who don’t know what they don’t know. I’m betting a lot of people in this group are self-publishing, and what they are publishing is bad.

I’m not criticising their ignorance. I remember how great I thought my first book was. And my second. And my third. And hey, even my fourth. I didn’t have the lure of self-publishing to tempt me, for which I am grateful, because I look back at that work now and I cringe. I cringe, and no one but me can see it. How much more would I cringe if it had been made public?

But I wonder, how many self-published writers will look back at the first book they published and regret it? I know one or two who have pulled books from the market for exactly this reason.

So if you're thinking about self-publishing, maybe stop a moment, consider which stage you think you're at, and ask yourself seriously if this work is something you'd be embarrassed to admit to in the future.

If you missed it, check out the latest in my Mythical Creature series - the truth about the vampire myth.

If you enjoyed this post, please feel free to check out my previous posts if you haven't already. If you're finding yourself here often, you might as well join as a member, sign up to the blog through RSS or email, or sign up for the newsletter.

Don't forget to share the love and spread the word on Twitter, Facebook or StumbleUpon (or other social networking site of your choice) if you know other people who might also enjoy this. 
Thanks for stopping by and visiting with us!


Rachel Thompson said...

We're playing blog tag, Ciara!

It's for your reasons above that I hire a content editor, proofreader, graphic artist, formatter, and ask beta readers to read my ARCs before anyone ever sees my books. Prior to that, I write with a crit group of all different levels and genres of writer -- I want as much criticism as I can have to make my writing the best it can be before it gets to the editing stage and then out into the world.

Any writer who takes their profession seriously will do all of the above. Those who don't are asking to be slammed.

However, to say that it's strictly a self-pub issue is simply adding to the bias that we are all ignorant hacks. I'm not slagging on you, personally so please don't take it that way (and I know you love me :). I just mean that there is beautiful, amazing work out there and it doesn't matter how people read it and enjoy it.

As long as they do.

Ciara Ballintyne said...

Nope, it's not only a self-publishing issue, it’s just a
very visible self-publishing issue. I support indie publishing, and I don’t
believe all indie writers are ignorant hacks. In fact, ALL WRITERS are at some
point ignorant hacks. It’s not the fact of being a self-published writer that
makes someone an ignorant hack, only their level of learning. All I’m saying is
that self-publishing provides writers with a mechanism at the early stages of
learning to showcase their work more publicly which didn’t exist, or existed to
a much smaller degree, than was the case before the advent of self-publishing (and
our impatient, need to have everything now society probably contributes as

I'm not suggesting self-published writers are worse than
writers pursuing traditional publishing, only that they are more visible - we
can't SEE how bad all the writers are who are pursuing traditional publishing
ONLY because they aren't in a public arena. It is that very visibility that
gives indie writers a bad name. Being an indie writer doesn’t make the writer
bad. Self-publishing is, however, a tool that makes it easier for a bad writer
to publish, and I’m suggesting that the Four Stages of Learning Model may indicate
there is likely to be a preponderance of bad writers publishing. Do you see the
distinction? I do, but the reason indie writers do have the stigma attached is
because most people don’t. They generalise.

In addition to supporting indie publishing, I also support
smart business, which involves selling a good quality product. You're
absolutely right that a writer who takes their writing professionally will have
an editor, a cover artist, a formatter etc., BUT some work just isn't ready for
the editor (if enough of the elements of fiction are missing or really poorly
executed, an editor can't fix it without rewriting, which isn't their job) and
there are the writers who don't take it professionally and don't use these
services. A lot of people publish because they want their work read, but forget
they are also charging people for that privilege, and if a customer pays for
it, they have the right to expect a standard of work commensurate with what
they've paid for it (which also raises questions about book pricing, but let's
not go there right now either....) . For hobby writers, there are alternatives
to self-publishing. And should serious, professional writers be categorised
with, and their reputation affected by, hobby writers? In a lot of other
fields, the distinction between professional and amateur is quite clear, but
for self-published writers, not so much.

I don't have the
answer to all the questions I've asked, but they are issues that trouble me, as
a reader and not just as a writer. Wow, that was almost a whole other blog
post... Oh, and yes, I do love you :-)

Rachel Thompson said...

great points. You're not a lawyer or anything, are you? hehe...

I work with lots of different types of clients -- traditional, indie press, and self. The majority who work with me want to put out the best product possible and that's why they've hired me (or other professional consultants).

That's the catch-22 I guess -- if you want professional help, chances are you're not going to put out crap. One can only hope. :)

Ciara Ballintyne said...

I think the ones who want help aren't often the problem - they are dedicated, diligent and want to put out the best work they can.

It's the ones who aren't seeking help, firmly argue they don't NEED help, or don't even KNOW they need help.

I'm not going to slam all indie authors. I've read some excellent books by indies, and I have a business plan that may well involve self-publishing. But as someone considering self-publishing in the future, would I be upset to be judged according to the very worst of indie writers? Yes, of course, but that's what's currently happening. I don't know what to do about it, but I think something needs to be done, for writers and readers.

Lawyer? Me? Uh *shifty eyes*

jeff said...


jeff said...

50 Shades of Grey was originally a self-published book!

Ciara Ballintyne said...

Yes, but it's now traditionally published, and when that happens, the book still usually goes through the publisher's editors, so I can them blame them for failing to pick up errors.

I'm also not saying all indie books are bad. I'm analysing why the self-publishing industry may be more pre-disposed to have more than it's fair share of bad books.

Rachel, who commented below, is an indie author, and I love her books, also Shawn Wickersheim (@stwick) and R.S. Guthrie (@rsguthrie). there are probably a few others I have forgotten to mention.

Martin Lake said...

I think there can sometimes be a fifth stage. Arrogant incompetence.

Martin Lake

Ciara Ballintyne said...

I think you can probably add arrogant competence as well, but I suspect that's related more to personality defects than the stage of learning. Probably that arrogance would follow a person through each stage ;-)

EB_Black said...

I've seen those stages before and I disagree with them because even the competent traditional publishers out there are still learning. All of us are. I'm never going to reach stage four and that's because I plan to improve my writing for the rest of my life. The difficulty for me is figuring out when I've written something that's good enough, even if it's not perfect.

Ciara Ballintyne said...

I don't think it suggests that you must be unconsciously competent to get a publishing contract, particularly as it's not writing specific. Also, I would break writing down into a number of skills - characterisations, POV, description, plot, pacing etc. A writer could be unconsciously competent in one or some of these, but still learning in others. For example, POV has not been an issue for me for a long time - my brain always just 'got it'. But there are plenty of other things I am still learning.

I have the same difficulty. My brain is always reaching for that elusive but unattainable perfection.

Amberr Meadows said...

And then there are some people who just are not cut out to be writers, and they need to realize it before annoyingly plugging their book all day on Twitter. :-)

Ciara Ballintyne said...

Thanks, Amberr, for being brave enough to say something that so often seems to be taboo in the indie space.

Not everyone can be a writer. there's no shame in that. No-one can do everything, and there's nothing everyone can do, I believe. But this is the unspoken truth that no one ever wants to put voice to.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...
Real Time Analytics