20% Work for 80% Improvement: Applying Pareto’s Principle To Your Writing

My fiancé works in quality control and safety. A year or two ago, his company sent him to some training, which was based heavily on Pareto’s Principle, which he explained to me as “if you fix 20% of your problem, the results will improve 80%.” For him, I believe the principle was used to demonstrate that 20% of hazards cause 80% of injuries.

More generally, Pareto says that 20% of the cause equals 80% of the outcome, and this is often applied to wealth distribution in society or the client stable of most businesses (80% of wealth is owned by 20% of people, 80% of your income comes from 20% of your clients, 80% of crime is committed by 20% of criminals, etc.) What’s funny about the 80/20 principle is how universal it is for every discipline. It is such a consistent rule of the universe that it occurs naturally like sacred geometry. It’s kind of eerie.


I feel creeped out already.

What does this have to do with writing? Well, some have said that 80% of your success as a writer will probably only come from 20% of your writing. The other 80% of your work might never be published or will bring you little success – except practice and perseverance are valuable things to gain from writing, period, so this really isn’t a loss. I think this rule can be used during your revision process though, to prioritize how fixing small/moderate problems can result in vast improvements. It’s a bit more nebulous, because you can’t really measure whether something is 70% or 80% better in quality, but in general I’ve found that fixing small things goes a long way to making me feel like I’ve written a totally different book.

I have been told that the weakest part of Paradisa is my characterization. I have (thankfully) not created a bunch of unlikable emo crybabies that the reader wants to throttle, but I have tried so hard to keep my characters likable that they’re bland. The emotions are told instead of evoked (darn my right brain self). They’re a little underdeveloped. We don’t get a good sense of their ordinary world. We aren’t ever sure how they’ll react in a given situation because we don’t know them well. My Pitch Wars mentor has given me some great tools for how to fix this, and it inspired me to go back to the Pareto Principle and finish this post I started long ago.

Because roughly 20% of a book is characterization. The rest is probably 20% plot, 20% style, 20% world building, and 20% everything else – pacing, diversity, research, continuity, conflict, tension, etc. We’re talking pure craft here, not how much is important to you when you pick up a book. So I’m going to treat plot and style equally, as they do matter and are judged just as harshly when you hand your manuscript to an agent.

By fixing the characterization – this fifth or quarter of what makes my book a novel – I probably will improve Paradisa by 80%. Think about it – a good book with okay characters versus a good book with great characters. One might stick with you for the rest of your life while you’ll probably forget about the other by next year. Careers are made or destroyed based on that audience response. It’s not trivial. And it’s so easy to fix, compared to that result gap. You don’t have to rewrite the whole book or reinvent the wheel. You just have to zone in on that 20% and carve it to the fullest potential.

This works for plot too. My plot stunk in Act I for several of my drafts. It felt like the characters had no agency. They were invited to be the characters of a fantasy novel and they said yes. Once I fixed the character motivations, oh man. Such a breath of fresh air. A couple of rewritten chapters and that plot was flowing like Dune spice.

Even if you don’t buy into the raw numbers or statistics, this is still a good message to take home for anyone in the Pitch Wars 2016 Revision Club, or those who are simply editing their long suffering manuscripts. If you’re staring at the page wondering why it’s not coming out right, try to focus on improving one sphere that doesn’t work. The results from that one improvement could raise the whole book to another level.