The Ninety-Nine Rule

Sunset over Howe Sound, West Vancouver, B.C.Ever hear of the Ninety-Nine Rule? Formulated by Tom Cargill of Bell Labs, it goes like this:

“The first 90 percent of the code accounts for the first 90 percent of the development time. The remaining 10 percent of the code accounts for the other 90 percent of the development time.”

Humorously, that adds up to 180 percent of the development time, but even if you correct the math, you end up with something that’s absolutely, undeniably true about pretty much any creative endeavor you wish to examine: it’s the last 10 percent that eats up 90 percent of the time.

It’s certainly true in the theatre. As an actor and director, I see it all the time. It’s pretty easy to get a show up on the stage with the blocking 90 percent done and the dialogue/music/etc. 90 percent accurate. But taking that roughed-in show and turning it into a polished piece of stagecraft takes hours and hours of additional rehearsal.

It’s true in visual design. I design a lot of posters for Regina Lyric Musical Theatre and create its newsletter, and also do the programs for Lyric and for The Golden Apple Theatre, the new professional theatre company here in Regina I serve on the board of. It’s easy to slap something together. But getting it to look good can take hours of tweaking, polishing graphics, choosing just the right font and font size, etc., etc.

And it’s absolutely true in writing. I’ve worked with a lot of young writers in various workshop scenarios, and the one thing I have to emphasize over and over again is that your work is not done when you type The End at the conclusion of your first draft: it’s just beginning. The rewriting and polishing is every bit as important: and, typically, far more time-consuming. (A caveat: everyone’s writing process is different. I have heard of writers who polish every sentence as they write, so that they feel they’ve done a good days’ work if they turn out a page of prose. I can’t work that way. For me, first drafts roll out almost as fast as I can type, at least when everything is working well, and the rewriting is where I take that rough-hewn piece of literary marble and shape it into a glistening, smooth work of art…or as close as I can get; sometimes I end up with something like the Venus de Milo; parts of it are great, but there’s still something missing…) .

This is a hard thing for young writers to hear. If you’re, say, fifteen years old and you’ve just written an entire novel, it’s very easy to be so proud of your creation–as you should be, just for the dedication it shows!–that you reject all suggestions that it could be improved.

It can be a hard thing for any new writer to hear, because, let’s face it, it’s a lot of work to write 100,000 words. The thought of going back over those words again…and again…and maybe again and again after that…is daunting. But it has to be done. And that effort, which in many ways is much greater than the original crafting of the draft, is what separates professional writers from those who are merely amusing themselves and whichever of their friends they can convince to read their very rough work.

Believe, me I know whereof I speak. I’m currently on my third…or is it my fourth?…rewrite of a YA book that I’ve been laboring over for what is, for me, a very long time: about a year and a half now. I’ve now spent far more time rewriting it than I did writing it, and it’s still not done.

And guess what? Even after a book is accepted, you’re still in that the-last-10-percent-takes-90-percent-of-the-time situation, because there’s a little something called editorial revision still to come. On my science fiction novel Marseguro, published by DAW, the comments from my editor, Sheila Gilbert, resulted in some 25,000 additional words. I’m currently revising Twist of the Blade, Book 2 in my Shards of Excalibur YA fantasy series. Soon I’ll have major revisions to complete on Magebane, my first fantasy novel for DAW, under my new nom de plume Lee Arthur Chane, and I already know those are going to be humongous.

But you know what? The extra effort required to polish anything, be it a play, a poster or prose, is worth it, because the satisfaction of knowing something you’ve created or helped to create is the very best it can be is enormous. That final 10 percent of the work may indeed take 90 percent of the time; but it also provides 90 percent of the reward.

The photo: Sunset over Howe Sound, West Vancouver, British Columbia

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