Efficiency in Writing

75rdBeginners use everything they write, but experienced writers generate about five times as much material as goes into the finished manuscript. That means that, for every page kept, four are thrown away. For some writers, or some passages, it could be as high as ten to one.

What Inefficiency Looks Like  There are all sorts of reasons to delete text into which you’ve put considerable time and effort:

• You delete a scene.
• You have to change the beginning of the story to make it consistent with later developments.
• You move a scene, breaking the transitions.
• You remove a prologue, someone told you editors hate them.
• You remove a subplot.
• You remove an info-dump.
• You thin out some material to speed up the pacing.
• You merge characters or plot points.

Sometimes a passage just doesn’t work and you’re forced to “murder your darlings,” a situation that comes up so often it was given a cool name. It can happen for a number of reasons: the passage was description-heavy and distracted from the action, it focused on something that wasn’t important, or it created a logical inconsistency.

Example – The Tower That Didn’t Exist Yet

I once wrote a chapter of fan fiction that included a description of the view from the highest level of a tower guarding the road through a mountain pass. The passage captured the feel of the wind high up in the air, the hawks wheeling just overhead, and the sickening drop to the road below.

When it was finished, I leaned back and regarded my work with satisfaction. Then I realized that when the scene took place, the tower hadn’t been built yet. 1 The first stone wouldn’t be laid for another seven years, when the invaders returned home and raised it to block the exit behind them.

The timeline was canon, it couldn’t be changed. Epic fail on my part. No matter how beautifully written the description was, the watchtower had to go. My POV character found himself standing on the road itself and camping beside it after the tower was deleted.

Cutting text for whatever reason is painful, but it’s part of writing. Most writers would prefer a strategy that results in cutting less.

The Limits of Efficiency

There are two kinds of inefficiency in writing: ordinary inefficiency, and that which is necessary for the creative process. 2

2 kinds of efficiency

When you write, you try out new things and explore ideas that you may or may not use. Or you might reword a sentence over and over to get it to sound just right. Rewriting something ten times is nothing unusual, unless you’re Hemingway, in which case it’s more like twenty times.

Much of what you type in won’t make the final manuscript, and the more experience you gain as a writer, the more material you’ll end up not using. It’s possible to write more efficiently, but only up to a point. Writing is a creative activity, and inherently inefficient.

1)  Waste That Can Be Avoided 

Ordinary losses are the result of work habits that result in wasted effort without adding quality to the finished product. Most ordinary losses are due to one of two things:

• Doing things in the wrong order
• Perfectionism

To illustrate the danger of doing things in the wrong order, I offer the following cautionary tale:

Example – Tearing Up Fifth Avenue

I went to school in Pittsburgh, and I had to cross Fifth Avenue on my way to Physics classes or medieval reenactment events. The city is famous for potholes, some of which could swallow a Honda Civic whole. Finally, the city repaired Fifth Avenue. It took a long time, but when they were done, the scarred roadbed lay beneath a new surface of asphalt, perfectly smooth and oiled a shiny black. A week later, they tore it up to install a new water main. Years later, I still remember how much I enjoyed mocking the city planners. And then I realized this is my writing process. I fix typos and spelling errors when type the rough draft. I rearrange scenes and destroy carefully worked transitions. I spend hours crafting lyrical phrases in passages that are cut later. I change the structure, and have to do the word polishing and copyediting all over.

Have you ever spent a great deal of time crafting the dialogue and action in a scene, writing vivid passages of description, then line editing the text? Then you changed the order of the obstacles and had to rewrite the transitions. Then during structural revision, you cut the whole scene. Painful and inefficient, and for many of us, the normal way to write.

Perfection Is Not Your Friend

The story is always better than your ability to write it. Robin McKinley

Perfection is the other major cause of wasted effort that could be avoided, but I’m not convinced it’s entirely different from doing things in the wrong order. My own experience with perfectionism is that I spend a lot of time on formatting, and then add or delete material that breaks my page layout and table of contents, requiring them to be redone, in my case at more than 17 times. I apparently have no idea to recognize when a piece is done.

When I did the surveys to learn what fast writers did differently from slow ones, the single most important thing that emerged was that slow writers were perfectionists. Oddly, perfectionism didn’t seem to improve the quality of the writing. It was the chief source of inefficiency, and appeared to add nothing.

Perfection has its place. It’s a good thing to give your editor a manuscript free of typos and formatting errors, but you don’t want to give that same level of polish to a rough draft or a block of text that will be reworked multiple times. Perfectionism has consequences, usually not good ones.

Example – Christmas Letter

A few years ago, I took the family Christmas letter to the office store to have it copied. When I got home, I noticed a small typo. The letter, which was color printed on both sides, would cost $100 to reprint. I couldn’t stand it, I went back to the store and had it redone. I’d like to say this was an isolated incident, but it happened again the next year.

2)  Waste Necessary for the Creative Process

Not all wasted effort is bad. In developing new material for your story, it’s normal to come up with a variety of ideas, some good, some less good. You pick a few that serve your purpose, or that fit together well, or that you especially liked. The rest go unused, even ones that were pretty good.

Writers are like artists. An artist might make a series of sketches, most of which end up crumpled and tossed in the corner. Perhaps a few turn out well, and one among them might become the basis of a finished work.

Were the sketches the artist threw away wasted? Technically yes, in that it took time to draw something that ultimately didn’t get used. Could the artist have made the finished drawing without having made the sketches that got crumpled up and thrown out? Probably not. Very often the final, successful work is a product of the focused attention that went into the sketches preceding it. You have to try things out to see what works.

Consider what happens in a brainstorming session. Brainstorming is a technique in which a group of people come up with random ideas and bounce them off each other. It’s uninhibited and silly, and a whole lot of fun. Usually, the session produces a host of ideas that are pretty lame, but also a few that are really good.

Example – What To Do with a Captured Vampire?

In my writing group recently, someone brought in a scene he’d been working on but hadn’t finished because he didn’t know how it should end. The scene opened like this:

A vampire hunter employed by the church had just captured a 500-year-old vampire, a particularly experienced and cunning example of its kind, and was preparing to turn it over to his employer, the Bishop. The Bishop wished to speak with the creature for what the hunter suspected were self-interested and sinister reasons. The hunter would have preferred to kill the thing outright. Even caged and chained, it was extremely dangerous. His loathing for them is personal:  his own wife had been taken by vampires, and he himself had to stake her. It galled him to leave one alive.

We wanted to know what happened next, but the author didn’t know. We kicked around some ideas.

• Would the vampire lure the hunter too close to the cage, perhaps using its hypnotic powers?
• Why did the Bishop want to talk to the vampire? Did he seek vampire-like immortality, or was he planning to sic the vampire on someone else?
• If the hunter freed the vampire, would it foil the bishop’s evil scheme? (whatever it was)
• Might the hunter starve the vampire, then trap the Bishop in the cage with it?
• When the vampire was set free, would it go after the hunter?

Within a few minutes, we’d come up with at least half a dozen story ideas. Obviously they couldn’t all be used; they differed in quality or verisimilitude, and they took the story in different directions.

Your first idea is almost never as good as your best among ten. Getting one really good idea may mean throwing out a lot of bad ones, but it’s a way to get that one really good idea.



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  1. The tower was Cirith Ungol, and the story began on the first day of the War of the Last Alliance, in SA 3434. Cirith Ungol wouldn’t be built until after the war ended in SA 3441, seven years later. Oops.
  2. I described avoidable and unavoidable losses in terms of Carnot efficiency from the First Law of Thermodynamics, but my editor made me take it out. “Your target audience has a Liberal Arts education. Not only are they unfamiliar with the First Law of Thermodynamics, they paid good money to avoid it.” 

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