This post is for those of you afflicted with the desire to write. Maybe you’ve tried all the right medications, maybe you’ve gone through rehab and gotten clean a few times, maybe you’ve even been through conversion therapy and pretended to be a happy human being who enjoys getting up and going to a job. Yet, for some reason your mind keeps coming back to an empty page.
If this is you, and if you’ve been at it long enough to write what you consider to be a large document — maybe fifty pages, maybe five hundred; it doesn’t matter — I’d like to pass along a little psychological survival tip that has kept me from doing something foolish over the years, either to myself or the project I’m working on.
While any first draft has its agonies, the fact that you don’t know how long your work will eventually be prevents you from thinking about your percentage of completion — assuming you’re not one of those numerologists who believes documents for certain mediums should always conform to specific page counts. Once your first draft is finished, however, you know exactly how much work you have to do to get through the next pass, and that in itself can prove daunting.
For example, if you’ve written a three hundred page novel, you know going in that you’re going to have to gut through a hundred and fifty pages just to reach the halfway point of the next revision. No matter how much you love writing that’s nobody’s idea of fun, and the more passes you have to make the more such awareness can take a toll, turning each draft into its own little death march.
Well, here’s the good news. When you’re revising a long document all you need to do is make it to 60%. If you can get there, if you can hang on that long, finishing the other 40% is easy precisely because of the math involved. (You may think, based on your prior history with math, that you’re not the kind of person who pays attention to percentages, but there is a primal part of your brain called the percental cortex that is solely devoted to doing exactly that.)
The Sixty Percent Solution
When you start any revision your percental cortex knows you have 100% yet to complete, which is why doing your taxes or cleaning out the garage or getting blind drunk suddenly sounds like a lot of fun. While you know you can take solace in trite milestones such as 10% completed or 25% completed, your percental cortex knows you’re merely whittling down the pages until you reach 50%, meaning it’s uphill all the way.
Unfortunately, while getting to 50% is usually an important milestone in any pursuit, it’s a hollow moment for a writer because it means you have to go through what you’ve just been through all over again. What you are about to learn, however — which your percental cortex will never understand, because it only cares about reaching 100% — is that you don’t have to gut out another 50% of your project. All you have to do is gut out another 10%, until you reach 60%.
Here’s why. When you hit 60% you’re only 6% away from 66%, which is two thirds of the way done — and two thirds is the first moment when you’re going to think you can make it. Granted, there’s only 16% difference between 50% and 66%, but psychologically everything changes when you hit the two-thirds mark because your mind and soul buy into a process that has so far only been marshaled by a dweeby part of your brain.
But it gets better. Once you’re at 66% it’s only 4% to 70%, which is serious progress. From there it’s only another 5% to 75% completed, which is three-quarters of the way done and feels like a real milestone. The kind of milestone where you can finally admit that it was touch-and-go for a while. The kind of milestone where you can have a good cry.
From 75% it’s only another 5% to 80%, at which point you will feel like you can phone in the rest. In a flash 80% becomes 85%, 85% becomes 90%, and 90% becomes 95%.
At which point everything inexplicably grinds to an agonizing crawl and the final 5% plays out like a horror show, but still — it’s only 5%! You can do it! Even if you hate every waking moment of your life you know you can finish the project! Probably!
So there you go. Get to 60% and you’re home free. Mostly.
And yes, if you’re wondering — I reached 60% on a project today. Just barely.
— Mark Barrett