Applying the 80/20 rule to writing

Screen Shot 2013-09-08 at 5.33.11 PMCreativity doesn’t tell you when it’s ready to go. You don’t know when you’ll have your ‘a ha!’ moment until it happens. So how are you supposed to plan to get writing done when you don’t know when the good stuff is ready to pour from your fingers?

The 80/20 rule is about knowing that of 100% of your work, 20% is actually the useful stuff. This won’t come as a surprise to writers: after killing the darlings, many revisions, and time spent trolling the internet for distractions–writing is actually all about editing and inspiration.

How writers can apply the 80/20 rule to writing:

  • Divide out your writing time into segments: if you set aside two hours for writing write for 20% and edit for 80%; or start by editing what you wrote the day before (20%) and then start your writing (80%).
  • When you’re in book outline mode: research for 80%, write for 20%.
  • If you work from home: 80% work at your desk, 20% work from a coffee shop or vice versa (whatever keeps you productive!)
  • Working with critique partners?: find your own 20/80 balance and share work accordingly.
  • If you write non fiction: research, conduct interviews, test recipes (or whatever it is!) for 80% and write for 20%
  • In the early stages of a project? Let yourself get distracted. Active procrastination is something I’ve mastered: watch TV, read books and magazine articles with openness for inspiration. 80% let your mind wander, 20% make notes.
  • Want writing practice? Do free association/stream of consciousness writing: Set yourself a time limit (say 10 minutes) and write whatever single word comes to mind for the first 8 minutes (computer, tree, bookshelf etc) and then, for the last 2 minutes, start writing in sentences which will help you flow into creativity.

As we all know, rules are meant to be broken and creativity is a cruel mistress. But being successful with your time is all about maximizing your potential. Take breaks, know that surfing the net is a form of inspiration (as well as procrastination), and be aware of your time. Many writers squeeze in their writing before their kids get up, after they get home from work, and other small segments of time.

Q: How do you maximize your time and creativity? 

Published by Carly Watters

Carly Watters is a SVP, senior literary agent and director of literary branding with the P.S. Literary Agency. She is a hands-on agent that develops proposals and manuscripts with attention to detail and the relevant markets. PSLA’s mission is to manage authors’ literary brands for their entire career. Never without a book on hand she reads across categories which is reflected in the genres she represents and is actively seeking new authors in including women’s fiction, commercial and upmarket fiction, select literary fiction, platform-driven non fiction and select memoir. She occasionally represents children's book projects. Carly is drawn to emotional, well-paced narratives, with a great voice and characters that readers can get invested in.

12 thoughts on “Applying the 80/20 rule to writing

  1. Carly, It was worth the wait. In past years, I wrote before my children awoke. Later, morning was my time. Now much of the basic WORK is done and I am rewriting and fine tuning and I do that 2-4 hours a day. But all of your suggestions are good ones. I think the hardest part is when the well runs dry. But getting to the keyboard can often break through that wall and the words will flow again. Beth Havey


  2. Such a timely post for me as I’ve been struggling to find a better balance between the “social” side of writing – social media/critique groups/writing forums – and the “quiet” side of writing, editing, revising.


  3. ‘writing is actually all about editing and inspiration’ – yes, Carly, after the first rush of inspiration, most of my effort is applied editing, refining, rearranging the narrative. It’s like chiselling away once you’ve sculpted the broad outline of the story you want to tell. Or kneading the dough so it will rise in the oven properly.

    I find it helps too if I write the inspirational first draft in longhand before going on the computer. It eases the flow.

    Good advice so thanks!


    1. Peter — you & I do the opposite, but with the same results, I’m sure!

      I prefer editing on paper: I like to print 2 pages onto one sheet (so it looks like a book). I find it easier to edit this way because I can flip a paper page instead of scrolling up and down on a computer page.

      In response to Carly’s question, though — I maximize my writing time by having a clear area to work. If my table is clean (and my cup of tea is hot), then I’m in the right space to write.

      I also carve out small moments devoted to writing (such as reading this blog). For example, right now, my 4-month-old is napping and my 2-year-old is making raisin faces in her oatmeal.

      Back to being a mommy. Editing my ms will come when they’re both napping (hahahahaaaaaaaa … if only!).


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