making the leap from intermediate to advanced

This essay, excerpted from a book on programming, applies just as much to writing as it does to code.

The author, Gregory Brown, draws a useful line between competence and proficiency:

Competence means having enough experience and knowledge to get stuff done; proficiency involves knowing why you are doing something in a certain way, and how it fits into the big picture. In other words, a proficient practitioner is always a competent practitioner, but the opposite may not be true.

You achieved competence as a writer by the time you graduated from college. If I assigned an essay to you today, you’d know to do some research, assemble an outline, write a draft, and revise it. Might not be a terrific essay, but you’d get from A to B, right?

(Ever wish you still had a professor who assigned reading and essays and gave you weekly lectures about whatever you find interesting? Me too.)

Most of us stop here; we can hack an essay and that’ll do. If you’re building credibility and authority, however, becoming proficient pays off. In fact, there isn’t a better investment of your time and energy out there. Unfortunately, the path from competence to proficiency isn’t clear.

There’s a bit of chicken-and-egg here. “Writing”—like “computer programming”—is actually a bunch of distinct sub-skills. Simply knowing spotting and developing your weak spots requires a nuanced understanding. You need to understand how writing works and what you’re trying to do with it:

This is where proficiency comes in. And at its essence, proficiency is about “why you do things a certain way”—It’s the difference between understanding each of the parts of a problem individually, and understanding how the parts fit into the whole.

So it takes higher-level experience to develop higher-level skill. No shortcuts.

For example, writing proficiency demands the capacity to develop cohesive long-form arguments. We all practice our short-form writing daily: emails and blog posts. Chances are, you’re pretty good at it. But building a good book is not the same thing as writing short, over and over. I meet folks famous for their short-form who can’t go beyond 1,000 words without fault lines appearing.

Again, a concept from programming applies: Norris’ number, attributed to programmer Clift Norris.

Norris identified a certain amount of code a novice can write before stumbling: 1,500 lines. Beyond that, they lose sight of the big picture. They can’t untangle new problems as they arise. The complexity becomes more than their current approach to programming can handle.

In explaining Norris’ number, programmer Lawrence Kesteloot writes that “the novice programmer ‘brute-forces’ the problem … When the code is under 2,000 lines you can write any tangled garbage and rely on your memory to save you.”

The same is true of writing. I can write an email or even a newsletter of 500 or 1,000 words without much planning. I start typing and stop when I’m done.

Writing a series of newsletters or a book requires a higher-order approach. A competent writer doesn’t have what it takes to understand one, let alone develop it. It takes proficiency, built from experience, trial-and-error, practice, feedback.

Kesteloot goes on to argue that 1,500 lines is only the first of several skill plateaus. Each time you reach one, you have to break your whole approach down and rebuild it to break through.

In mid-1996 I was tasked with writing the DreamWorks lighting tool (with two other programmers) and knew that this would be far larger than 20,000 lines of code. I changed my approach to programming and the tool was successfully delivered a year later at around 200,000 lines. (It’s scheduled to be retired in 2013, having been used daily over 16 years to make 32 movies.) I’ve since written several more programs in the 100,000 to 200,000 line range. I’m sure I’m hitting the next wall; I can feel it.

This is why we’re always looking for the right advice for where we are in our development. It’s a challenge finding the appropriate book or coach or course on your own. People can rave about On Writing Well, but if you’re not at the right stage to absorb it, it’s not going to do you any good. This is one reason one-on-one coaching helps.

As a rule, I write the Maven Game for experts in other fields who are competent writers. I tailor my advice for those going from competency to proficiency, from blog posts to books. I’d take a different approach writing for beginners—and I’d have many more readers. But that’s OK. I like to think of this list as cozy. See you next week.


p.s. I’m still wrestling a minimal template for authors’ personal websites, my idea from last week. I tried a number approaches with my own site. Still not right.

Coincidentally, Kesteloot, referenced above, takes an elegant approach of his own.

Right now, I’m thinking I may develop a from-scratch WordPress theme for this specific purpose. Ideas? Suggestions? Let me know.