The 70% option

The 70% option

I’m a web and application designer by trade. The designs I create are used in financial software served up by major banks all over the U.S., which means that my work ends up impacting — for good or for ill — millions of online banking users just like you. (Don’t throw things at me. I promise we do our best.)

In my day job, all my design colleagues are super-concerned that we don’t “break” things for you. We want you to feel good about using our software. We want you to feel confident and informed and successful. Our process for achieving that when the company wants to add a new feature is to draw several different options, put them in front of real users for critique, and then distill everything we learn from our tests into fresh designs, and then test again. Every time we test, we uncover something new to leave out or to add or to change.

This process can cost tens of thousands of dollars and months of effort, and yet we still sometimes get complaints about how the software works. Everyone’s brain is different. Everyone’s experience is different. So what works for a majority of people won’t work for a (sometimes very vocal) minority.

What does any of this have to do with writing?

One of my colleagues is very smart, very accomplished, and holds an advanced degree from a prestigious design school. He’s totally laid-back and approachable, but little ole self-trained, School of Hard Knocks me always feels a little bit like a slacker when I’m showing him my designs. Rather than keep feeling like a crappy designer, I decided to just ask him what he does and how he does it, and how I could improve.

He told me something astonishing: Shoot for 70% good design and work out the rest later.

I was dumbfounded. Like you, I’ve heard the phrase, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” for years. But the penny hadn’t really dropped for me until my colleague put a number to it.

We’ve talked on this blog about “writing drunk” and being generous and patient with ourselves and giving ourselves permission to write a shitty first draft. But while I happily read about it (and even blogged about it from time to time), I’m not very good at letting go of my inner perfectionist. I want to write well all the time. Even in first draft. Even when I’m just making notes before I’ve typed Chapter One on the page.

And now that I’m in my second year of struggling with my third Promise House novella, I find my design colleague’s advice strikingly fresh. Evelyn has been a bear to write for many reasons I won’t go into here. Suffice it to say that I’ve spent several months in burnout recovery and that I’m currently on my third major rework of the story, with some of the first two versions retained but much falling by the wayside.

Rather than go into “analysis paralysis” when I’m finding my way through the first draft of the third revision of the story, doesn’t it make sense to let go of the perfect in order to get to 70% good? And doesn’t it follow that I can then worry about the last 25-30% during the editing phase?

It’s not a crappy first draft I’m after (that analogy has never resonated with me), but rather a decent first draft. Something I can work with and massage and edit into a moving, interesting, satisfying, fully-fledged story.

I’m aiming now for a 70% first draft. And that’s something I can get behind 100%.

Sandra K. Moore

Sandra K. Moore has been writing one thing or another since she could scribble on a Big Chief tablet. A former Silhouette Bombshell author, Sandra has given up (temporarily) the kickass heroine and is now writing from her softer side for the self-published Promise House series. This novella quartet explores the journeys of four young women finding their way — and remaining true to themselves — through the social expectations and turmoil of 1950’s Houston.

5 thoughts on “The 70% option

  1. So much of life is perception – I love changing the perception of a ‘cappy 1st draft’ to ‘70%”
    On a first pass, you get 70% (a C) – but then you edit (study) and raise your grade. And the cool thing about being a writer is that we can retake the test until we get to 100% – which may mean we have to edit more than once. Or we may decide that 90% is enough. Thanks, Sandra. Great POST! Now, let’s all get busy on getting to 70%.

    1. Better at the writing or better at letting go of the perfect?

      Keep in mind that when we’re “cramming” to hit our goals every other week, that pressure cooker is not conducive to pre-critique editing. I don’t know about you, but my pages are sometimes hot off the press and I’m just hoping for the best while simultaneously beating myself up for said pages not being perfect… The cognitive dissonance is astonishing! 😀

  2. Warning, Ladies. I’m about to lay a baseball analogy on y’all! When you retire from a Major League career, anything above a .250 lifetime batting average is considered remarkable. Which means that if you stepped up the plate and FAILED three out of four times, you’ll still go down as one of your sports’ best.

    To take that a step further, during any individual game, a batter’s percentage of getting a hit improves each time through the rotation, i.e., the more familiar he becomes with a particular pitcher’s style and a particular umpire’s strike zone, the more likely he is to make corrections and connection bat to ball.

    So if you apply that to writing, it only makes sense that we should expect a home run from our first drafts. It’s the second and third passes through our WIP where we’ll really begin to “see” the story, the characters, the plot and eventually, our grand-slam of a Happily Ever After!

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