Thursday, December 16, 2010

The 80-20 Rule

80-20 Rule

The Pareto Principle* states that eighty percent of the work takes twenty percent of the time and twenty percent of the work takes eighty percent of the time. I’ve seen it at work in engineering, government, marketing and writing. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, when talking about new technology, has been quoted as saying, “Give me the eighty percent solution.” He wants what can be done in first twenty percent of the effort – it will be good enough. The last twenty percent is commonly where cost overruns are encountered. Only if the technology proves itself, will the Department of Defense pay for the final twenty percent.

The concept is intriguing. As an artist, it is easy to see projects have two phases, the phase where the bulk of the work gets done and the phase where the details get done. The first phase is usually finished quickly, the last phase takes time, and more often than not - lots of time.

In which phase, as a writer or illustrator, do you spend your time? Personally, I like to sit in the first eighty percent of my writing. The feeling of making progress quickly gives me a rush. Spending tedious time on the details of the last twenty percent bogs me down. I feel every second of the last twenty percent. I look down at the meager progress and shake my head at how little has been done. The last twenty percent of character development, the last twenty percent of setting, theme, voice, grammar – is it ever done?

For some reason I find myself picturing Tolkien’s Gandalf when it comes to the eighty-twenty rule. I picture him almost immovable, taking a long drag from his pipe, wispy curls of smoke floating around his head. What’s he doing? The last twenty percent. While the other characters accomplish the eighty percent of the quest, Gandalf is searching through the ancient scrolls of Gondor, finding the one rune or spell to make it all happen. Without his work, the quest is doomed. That last twenty percent is important, though dull it may be.

Don’t fight the eighty-twenty rule. You may find it bigger than you. To get the book or painting to the point of done, it will take the last twenty percent of tedious details being accomplished. Don’t give in. The last twenty percent could be the difference between a classic and a single print. I once asked David Diaz how he knew when a work was finished. He likened it to eating. He said he would take a deep breath and know he’d finished.

Wherever you are in the process (after all who counts percentages anyway? Engineers?), enjoy the phase you find yourself in. Take the time to get it done.

By the way, I can think of no better way to work on the last twenty percent than by getting involved in a critique group and sharing the pain. That is what we are here for anyway. If you can’t find a critique group in your area, think about starting one. Plenty of people are looking for the encouragement and challenge of a critique group to hone their skills and finish the last twenty percent. Enjoy! Keep writing and illustrating.

(*Here’s an example. If the first draft of a book took two hours a night for six months (336 hours) to finish, mathematically only the first eighty percent of the book is really done and it has taken twenty percent of the overall time to finish. The last twenty percent of the book, according to the eighty-twenty rule, will take eighty percent of the overall project. This means two hours a night for 24 more months (1344 more hours) for a total of 30 months (1680 hours, because 20% of 1680 = 336 and 80% of 1680 = 1344). It is sobering. Current publishing trends bear it out, though. It takes an average of ten years to publish a debut novel.)