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How to Use the 80/20 Principle to Perfect Your Writing

Turbo-charge your writing by using the 80/20 editing process, which is used in professional newsrooms.

By
Stever Robbins,
August 9, 2016
Episode #420

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Writing! I just love writing! And to produce the best writing, you need editing. Editing! I just love … no, I don’t. I hate editing. Writing takes a lot of time in the first place, adding editing on top of it takes even longer. But there’s a better way! Newspapers create hundreds of pages of high-quality writing every single day, and all of it goes through a writer and an editor. They must have secret powers. Or … they’ve found a magical way to speed up the process.

Bernice was working on a first article for her Green Growing Things blog. She really wanted Melvin to review the articles. He was busy with IT problems with the computers controlling the annual Green Growing Things Greenhouse Pink Floyd Laser Light Show Sleep-Over Pillow Fight Extravaganza Fest 2016 and couldn’t spend too much time on her writing. But editing takes time no matter what, and Bernice needed the article looked at too. After all, the Extravaganza Fest was coming. When there’s little time but time is of the essence, we need a way to edit fast.

The answer? Use the 80/20 principle.

How to Edit Using 80/20

The 80/20 principle says that only about 20% of your work will lead to 80% of the result. Here’s an example. Let’s say you’re starting a freelancing career. Your to-do list contains a gazillion items: “Get logo designed. Find website provider. Create website wireframes. Return phone call to prospective client. Print business cards. Send bank statements to bookkeeper.” There’s lots to do, right? Wrong. If the goal is to have a thriving business, the to-do item “Return phone call to prospective client” is the 20% of the task list that will get you 80% of the way to the result.

The 80/20 rule also applies to writing. Only in writing, you get 80% of the way there in 20% of the time. Then you spend the last 80% of your time getting the last 20% of the polished draft. The key to great, fast writing is to cut out that last 80%-of-the-time-for–20%-of-the-quality step. Instead, replace that by a 20%-of-the-time-gets–80%-of-the-quality editing pass.

By using the 80/20 method, you can streamline your editing process by easing the load on overworked members of your team.

Here’s how it works:

Start writing until you get a draft that’s about 80 percent done. The language might be a bit rough, and the logic might not be perfect yet, but don’t get stuck on that. Instead, hand it off to your editor. Then, they do a 20% editing pass. They make high level comments which improve the writing. Resisting the urge to nitpick spelling and grammar, they hand their conceptual edits back to you. These become fuel for another 80 percent draft, which prompts another 20 percent edit, and so on. You continue until you run out of time, or until you’re happy with your product — which might be a lot sooner than you think. The total time it takes for multiple 80/20 editing passes is less than it would take to stick with the article and nit-pick it up to 100%.

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