The 80/20 Rule and Writing

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More Pareto - how exciting.
More Pareto – how exciting.

As writers, we put the most effort into the smallest details. This only struck me today, and now it’s driving me nuts. Here’s why.

I read a design article by Ted Alspach, creator of the board game Suburbia, in which he talked about the huge effort that went into balancing the game’s latest expansion. He cited the 80/20 principle, that 20% of the work on the game, tweaking things to get the balance just right, took up 80% of the time.

This 80/20 principle, which is used in many ways and many contexts, is also known as the Pareto principle. It’s named after its inventor Vilfredo Pareto, who therefore has the dubious honour of being history’s only famous statistician. Famous to maths teachers and business consultants that is, not real people.

Don’t get outraged, maths teachers and business consultants. I’ve done both those jobs. I’m allowed to be rude about them.

Anyway, this is a principle that applies in my writing. 80% of the words are the easy ones, the fundamentals I can throw down on the page and won’t have to change. They take up 20% of the time. But it’s the other 20% that will take up 80% of the time, whether I’m tearing my hair out looking for the perfect way to describe a lightbulb or editing the same paragraph fifteen times because it just doesn’t read right.

I didn’t mind until I noticed this, but now I resent that 20%. How dare it suck up all my time? Screw you 20%, and screw you with nobs on Vilfredo Pareto, for making me notice.*

But it’s that 20% that makes the remaining 80% – the bread and butter of story and sentence structure – worth reading. It’s the icing that turns a bland sponge cake into something exciting. The ketchup in the fried egg sandwich. The Zayn in One Direction.

So maybe I should relish that 20%. It is, after all, what will make my writing worthwhile. Because without that ketchup, who wants to eat a fried egg sandwich?** And without Zayn, who cares about One Direction any more?***



* Not really. Pareto did good work, and is not my type.

** Brown sauce is also acceptable.

*** Wait, you didn’t care about them anyway? Congratulations, you’re a better person than I am. Now go listen to ‘Kiss You’ and tell me it didn’t make you smile.