Words.

(Reposted from the Spring ’13 Advanced Reporting blog.)

On occasion, when I feel overwhelmed at a new job (food service, camp counseling, journalism — take your pick), I call my father, looking for a little extra encouragement as I learn the ins and outs of the position. My favorite question is usually a variation of “It’s OK that I’m still figuring out what I’m doing, right?”

He generally responds with his favorite breakdown of the stages of learning a job. He calls the first unconscious incompetent. Basically, you don’t know what you’re doing, and you don’t realize it. The second is conscious incompetent — you don’t know what you’re doing, but you realize that. The third is conscious competent —you know what you’re doing, and you’re aware of it. The fourth is unconscious competent, when your work becomes second nature. (I don’t know if this comes from his infinite, fatherly wisdom or if he learned it somewhere else, but either way, it’s not a bad way to think about it.)

After 11 weeks of reporting, I’d like to add a new category — inordinately hyper-conscious semi-competent.

Now, I’m not talking myself down or selling myself short by using the word “semi-competent.” Among the things I’ve learned this semester, I’ve realized that I’m able to do whatever is asked of me and can step up when I need to.

But I’m also becoming extremely aware that as a 21-year-old learning to be a journalist, I have a lot of growing to do.

I’ve been writing a lot for the last week or so, trying to pump out drafts of my next couple of stories so I can start focusing on newer ones. Every time I sit down to write, I have to fight not to get stuck. I stare at the screen, I rifle through my notes, I type a few words, I delete them, I write them again, I go to the water fountain, I stare at the screen, I delete something I wrote earlier, I try to rewrite it.

In the words of Kurt Vonnegut: “So it goes.”

One of my goals this semester is to improve my writing. And while I know I’m growing in that area, sometimes the process is a little painful. Suddenly, all my words have gravity, and the way I word every sentence matters. Did he net, nab or earn the award? Did she sidle, slip, slide, step or saunter into the room? How do I explain electrophysiology so my readers can understand it without being ridiculously wordy? Is that the right word, or the almost right word?

I  guess part of getting better at something is fighting through the growing pains. As a journalist, I’m going from putting down words that will get me to deadline without being inaccurate or confusing to composing each thought with care. I haven’t reached the point where beautiful, journalistic prose (I just looked up the word prose to make sure I’m using it correctly) flows from my fingertips when I sit down to write. But I have reached the point where I’m thinking about exactly what I’m saying and how I’m saying it. It’s just taking a little while for me to adjust to thinking about my writing that way.

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