Sunday, August 2, 2009

How to Apply the 80/20 Rule to Writing

Most people are familiar with the 80/20 Rule (also known as the Pareto Principle or the Power Law), but it's not often applied towards writing. Yet there are many ways you can use this powerful concept to improve the quantity--and quality--of your writing.

For those of you unfamiliar with the 80/20 rule, it says that the bulk of the output of a system typically comes from a very small number of inputs.

In its most basic sense, the 80/20 rule suggests that for every situation, there are a few critical inputs (the "critical few") that you should pay a lot of attention to, and many unimportant inputs (the "trivial many") that you can ignore.

In this post I’ll go over several ways you can apply this powerful rule to accomplish a lot more in your writing--even if you have limited time and resources.

1) Wasted Time: A small number of activities (surfing the web, watching TV, Facebook, checking email obsessively, etc) likely waste the vast majority of your time. If you ruthlessly curtail the time spent on one or two of these activities, you'll free up a disproportionately large amount of time that can be dedicated to writing.

2) Best Writing Sessions: You will generate roughly 80% of your writing in the best 20% of your writing sessions, implying that some of your writing sessions are significantly more productive than others. When you have a productive writing session, identify the factors that make it productive, and try to replicate those factors in all of your writing sessions.

3) Failed Writing Sessions: A small number of your writing sessions will be far more wasteful and unproductive than the rest. What factors caused this? Can you remove those factors so as to prevent writing sessions like this?

4) Writing Quality: Roughly 20% of your writing will be of a quality far above the rest. That's the writing you should publish. A corollary: Don't get discouraged if 80% of your writing is crap. It happens to all of us.

5) Know Your Audience: Your audience will vastly prefer some 20% of your writing. Follow the analytics of your blog, or analyze which of your short stories, film scripts, or other writing received the most enthusiastic reception, and create more work like this. It should drive more success your way.

6) Generating Ideas: You'll think up 80% of your best ideas in 20% of the time you dedicate to creative activities. Identify what puts you in these highly creative states and try to recreate those conditions every time. Likewise, you'll waste 80% of your time spent generating new ideas. Perhaps that time would be much better spent on editing, reading or other activities.

7) Productivity: You will have some days that are vastly more productive than others. Exploit those days by extracting as many hours of writing out of yourself as you possibly can. If you finish your day's writing well ahead of time, don't quit for the day--keep writing! Make the most of it and you may complete more work in this one day than in several average days.

8) Book Sales: 80% (or more) of book sales will come from 20% of authors. This explains why the publishing industry throws huge amounts of money at a very small number of authors while it ignores great work from everyone else.

9) Success and Failure: Some 80% of your work will likely fail to gain an audience (this number may approach 100% for some authors). However, a lifetime of writing (and suffering) can become instantaneously worthwhile with just one major success. Develop a thick skin and keep trying.