Post from 409, August 2019

The 80 20 Rule

Sunday, 4. August 2019 23:44

So I’m on the cusp of finishing the first draft of a very large writing project. The problem is, though the end is in sight, I can’t quite seem to get there. Ideas and anecdotes keep jumping into my mind, all wanting to be added to the project. And some of them are worth putting in, so I have to stop and consider each one individually. The result is that it seems the end will never arrive. As I was dealing with this, a thing called the 80 20 Rule (also known as the “80/20 Rule”) popped into my mind, so I turned to my friendly internet to gather more information.

For those of you who don’t know, the 80 20 Rule, also called the “Pareto Principle” after its founder, an Italian economist named Vilfredo Pareto, says that in any endeavor, “80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.” Although originally applied to economics, it turns out that this 80-20 split can be applied to nearly any human activity. For example, if you type “80 20 Rule” into Google, you come up with an almost endless list of predictive activities. Plug in “80 20 Rule writing” and you get 144 million hits. In the first of these, Stever Robbins says of writing a draft, “The 80/20 rule also applies to writing. Only in writing, you get 80% of the way there in 20% of the time. Then you spend the last 80% of your time getting the last 20% of the polished draft.

The more I think about it, the more profound the implications of the 80 20 rule seem. It may certainly account for the frustration we all experience toward the end of a project when we are ready to wrap things up and suddenly there seems more to do. It may even be an explanation for the difficulty in writing endings. Every writing teacher I know and almost all writers say that writing endings are the most difficult part of any writing project. Perhaps this is because of the tremendous effort required to produce the last 20% of the project.

Although Robbins has a technique for changing the process—at least for writers—so that that last 80% of the time gets streamlined, it involves adding an editor to the workflow, and just may not be practical for all writers, or other artists. Perhaps the best we can do with the 80 20 Rule is to understand that it is a thing, and work accordingly. Acknowledging the rule allows us to be far less dissatisfied with our progress than we might be otherwise. And that is a step forward in anyone’s book.

The other thing that we can do, being aware of this rule, is to plan our projects to account for the increased effort that will be required toward the end of the project, whether that project is writing, or editing photographs, or perfecting choreography, or directing a play or creating a character. If we know the last 20% will require as much as 80% of the effort put into the whole project, we can prepare for that, and in so doing, produce a more complete product. Put simply, planning our projects to account for the 80 20 Rule will allow us to do better work.

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