The Rule of 33%

I had a fun conversation online the other day with a relatively new writer who was facing a familiar problem.  He had a great plot, the basics of some decent characters, and a notebook full of jotted down ideas.  He had even written out a fairly organized outline.  So what was the problem?  Enter the nemesis of anyone who puts words on paper for a living or otherwise: the dreaded writer’s block.  Perhaps you’ve heard of it?  If so, I’ve got good news – I can help you beat it.  I call it The Rule of 33% and it changed my life as a writer.

“When working on a first draft, begin the project realizing that 33% of what you write will be good, 33% of what you write could be good after editing, and 33% will be cut completely.”

The problem with our brains…well, one of the problems with our brains…is that they are designed to think both creatively and logically.  Your creative brain is the one that says staying out at the clubs until four in the morning is a great idea, whoo-hoo let’s have another shot!  The logical brain is the responsible party-pooper complaining about having to get up for work in the morning and reminding that hangovers are miserable.

These two abilities are in direct conflict with each other at all times and, if not managed properly, result in a stalemate in which neither side gets what it wants.  You are either at the club having a miserable time because all you can think about is having to wake up for work, or you are at home and can’t sleep because of all the fun you’re missing out on at the club.  Nobody wins.

Writing is a process of both creative and logical application.  The creative side lets you imagine entire worlds with intricate plots, living, breathing characters, and exciting conflict.  The logical side lets you look back on what you’ve created and objectively identify mistakes in grammar, scene continuity, and format.  Both abilities are crucial if the writer is going to create a successful piece that is both entertaining and coherent for the reader.

As with our club-hopping dilemma, the same conflicts apply when writing.  Creativity is stagnated by the logical part of the brain constantly insisting on pointing out every little problem.  “Oh, missed a comma there, bud”, and “Sigh, that character isn’t believable at all” or “Do you actually think you can do this?”  It’s hard to be creative when letting your logical brain dominate the conversation.

The key is to train your brain when to be creative and not logical, and vice versa.

Logic is essential when editing, but if you aren’t allowing yourself to be creative first there will never be anything written down to edit.  You might muscle out a chapter or two, but if you start editing and rewriting without allowing the whole story to make it on paper, you are in jeopardy of convincing yourself the work you produce isn’t good enough.  You’ll inhibit creativity and be afraid to keep writing.  You’ll move on to the next chapter timid and wary to type anything, because logic-brain has convinced you it won’t be good, so what’s the point?  That’s a block.  Let it happen long enough and you could end up abandoning the whole project altogether.

We can’t very well have that now, can we?  So before you allow logic to play its role in the process, you must give creativity the freedom to do as it pleases. Which is where The Rule of 33% comes into play.

“You’ve heard that first drafts are never good…you just haven’t convinced yourself it’s true.”

You’ve no doubt heard that first drafts are never good.  Or, as I so eloquently like to say, first drafts always suck.  If you’re suffering from writer’s block, it means that you have heard that first drafts suck, but you haven’t convinced yourself that it’s true.  Read that again, I’ll wait.  You can say the words all you want, but until you believe it, logic will always prevail.  And logic doesn’t put words on the paper.  So live it, love it, learn it.  Most of all, believe it.

Here is where The Rule of 33% can help.  When working on a first draft, go into the project knowing that 33% of what you write will be good “as is”, 33% of what you write could be good after editing, and 33% will be trash.  (If you’re wondering where the remaining 1% went, that is your logic-brain speaking.  It is terrified of what you just read and is doing everything it can to distract you.  Stop it.)

Being cognizant of the rule is a good way of telling yourself that what you are about to write doesn’t have to be good.  In fact, you’re already coming to terms with the fact that most of it won’t be.  That’s not only okay, but expected!  So write to your daily goal, and then forget about it.  If something is wrong (and 66% of it will be, right?) you will fix it later.  Much, much later.  Tomorrow, just let creative-brain keep writing.  Get that sucky first draft on paper, because nothing else matters!

Another big plus about The Rule of 33% is that the process compounds.  When you have a completed manuscript and start rewrites, the parts that you revise will also follow this rule.  The first draft is 33% good, right?  So you’re already a third of the way there.  Whatever rewrites you do will also be 33% good, 33% good when edited, and 33% trash.  As you repeat the process, the percentage of “good” overall increases by default.  Do this often enough, and eventually you have a 100% good, completed project.

Here’s the interesting part:  you are already following this rule, you just don’t realize it.

Think about the last time you wrote something and went back to edit it later.  How much of it was good?  How often did you think to yourself, Gee, that’s not too bad.  If I just make a few adjustments, it’ll be perfect?  How much of it were you embarrassed to admit you wrote and cut out completely?  Unless you’re some kind of writing prodigy, you probably recognize the pattern.  And they most likely came in equal parts.  The only difference is by editing as you create, you are interrupting the creative process and therefore never making it to the finish line.

Am I turning on any lights yet?

The beauty of this rule I’ve created is that it is simple and serves as a confidence-boosting reminder whenever you are having trouble getting the words on paper.  When I’m struggling to meet my daily goal, chances are good it means I’m not in creative mode.  I need only remind myself that expectations are low – that my first draft can suck – and the words will flow.  Getting the first draft out is what is important now, I can always fix the problems later.

If you convince yourself to follow this guideline – if you believe your work doesn’t have to be perfect the first go-around – you’ll find the words will flow much easier.  And you’ll never have to worry about writer’s block again.

As always, thoughts and comments are welcome below.

 

100% of the followers of this website don’t get writer’s block.