The 80/20 Rule in Writing

The 80/20 Rule

The rule of thumb is that 20% of your time spent on anything, including writing, gives you 80% of your final value – and the final 20% of your value costs you 80% of your time and effort.

In writing fiction, the [20% time/80% value] consists of all the preparation work: picking a plot, selecting settings, choosing characters, thinking about themes.

And getting to a competent, if rough, first draft of the complete story.

There is considerable value there already, and it comes after a reasonable application of time and butt-in-chair. It even looks good, reads well, has the feeling of having the gist and gestalt of the story locked in.

Is 80% a good-enough place to quit?

If you’re like me, and produce competent first drafts (punctuation, spelling, formatting have to be right for me, or I can’t even read my own work to edit it), it feels as if you’re close to the end and the final product.

I think, ‘Just a little tweaking, some language cleanup, a couple of reading passes to adjust whatever seems rough – and I’ll be done.’

And I am so utterly wrong that it baffles me. Again. Every time.

Why? Because at every scene so far, THIS is the place where my Internal Critic (IC) tells me we have to dig. Deeper. A LOT deeper.

Harnessing (?) the Inner Critic

Fortunately for me, even though I beg it to, IC doesn’t do this to me before we get the rest of the externals out. I think if I knew at the beginning how much work would be required to get things up to snuff, I’d just give up right away, and not set myself up for pain.

The idea that I can write efficiently is a REQUIRED subterfuge produced by my inner writer – without that feeling of competence I can’t get started at all. Without the feeling that I have a good-enough idea, and a good grasp of the pieces that will be necessary – a feeling that sometimes comes out of nothing more than ‘I’ve done this all before’ – there would be no point in starting.

And indeed in the past – before I learned to write out writer’s block – I had a lot of trouble getting started at all. Even blaming most of it on illness – and knowing there wasn’t anything else I wanted to do more with my time – starting, daily, was hell. Most days it got easier as I went along; some days nothing worked.

But beginning, settling down to write, blocking the internet – all these were so daunting it’s a wonder I ever got anything down on paper/screen.

Floating islands of words

It’s as if I set up my own island, loaded with volcanoes and palm trees, surrounded by waves and tropical breezes, without thinking at the beginning of more than the decoration, the resort and the beach and the jet skis. And then realize that, if I don’t do some more work, there is nothing keeping that thing afloat, nothing connecting it down, possibly miles, to the bottom of the sea, and that the lovely sucker is going to sink like a stone beneath the waters, collapsing of its own weight, and going down.

And that work, setting up the solid underpinning, the whole mountain of which the lovely tropical island is only the tip, is, looking back, what is consuming 80% of my writing time.

I don’t know if this part gets better, faster, more efficient. So far, for me, it hasn’t. It still takes most of my writing time.

Can efficiency be obtained?

What has happened instead is that the 80% part of the work FEELS to me as if it is producing better writing, and that it is something that I NEED. No one forces me to do this part of the work – as I said, the draft up until that point feels competent.

In the culture of ‘write it, put it out there, sell it, and move on to the next piece – and your writing will improve naturally because of the quantity’ –  I’m doing the wrong thing. I’m wasting my time. I’m taking too long. I’m putting lipstick on a pig, and I should let this one go, and pick a better pig next time.

Underlying problems

For me, the disconnect between that competent first (or nth) draft and the shining story in my head, IS the problem of writing.  The rest is merely setup, getting things to a place where I can even compare the written draft to the (true) story.

Illness? Basic lack of talent? Ridiculous standards? I don’t know.

What I do know is that I write this way – and that if I could see how much work is hidden by the 80/20 drop-off ahead of me, I would never have to courage to reach for the notes and scribblings and structure to get this latest sucker of a scene started.

The analogy is way overused, but if women remembered the true cost and pain in rearing a child, they’d never have more than one.

Forgetting is a blessing

This ‘forgetting’ is something the mind does to protect us – writers and mothers – from our own fears, so that we CAN get started. But, in the same way parenting is an infinite job, and your adult child is never quite finished, but you have to declare the child-rearing ‘good enough’ if you are to get on with life, writing an individual scene WILL come to an end after more work and bother than you had ever imagined – and be worth it.

I hope mine do.

Or maybe I’m deluding myself.

What do you do when you reach the 80/20 point?

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4 thoughts on “The 80/20 Rule in Writing

  1. clairechase51

    All interestng, Alicia. I liked your analogies of the beautifu scene on thel island and motherhood. They made things quite clear. I don’t write books, but I do notice that when I reread my longer emails sometimes I start tweaking and end up practically rewriting the whole thing.

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    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      Writing competent first email drafts is standard – but they are like conversations: the longer they go, the more they wander.

      Turning them into something organized usually takes me work. Most of the time it’s not worth it – your reader will ‘get it’ anyway. But as essays, long emails usually need editing. Nature of the beast.

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  2. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

    Just musing about why it takes me so long to get from ‘almost okay’ to ‘okay.’ I thought all that other stuff – plot and characters, etc., was most of it – and that’s just basically stretching the canvas and getting the paints out.

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