Writing, Editing and the “80/20 Rule”

Nader Elhefnawy
2 min readNov 10, 2023

Not long ago I remarked the rather miserable quality of the advice that we tend to get about writing and editing. Indeed, it seems to me that when it comes to editing we can often find better advice — even about editing prose — just looking at discussion of software editing.

Why is that? I suppose that it is that people generally don’t think much of writing as a practical activity where “time is money” and deadlines press (even though they do for professional writers), but that they do think in such terms when considering software writing, and so discuss the matter more seriously.

The particular bit of this that I have in mind is the Pareto principle-derived “80/20 rule” — or rather, one particular form of it, holding that 80 percent of a software engineering team’s effort on a project will have to do with just 20 percent of the piece of software, an extreme disproportion (the team putting in 16 times as much work, relatively speaking, on that part as the whole rest of the thing). In at least a broad way this principle seems to me to apply to work on prose as well, limited portions of a text likewise likely to suck up an extremely disproportionate share of the time and effort.

I might add that this becomes clearer in hindsight than in advance as those doing the work find themselves going over that bit again and again and again to get it right, or as close to right as they can, with even those who know that this kind of thing happens unpleasantly surprised when it does happen in a particular place and time (the more in as they may have hoped to get lucky and avoid it). The fact plays its part in so often making the start of a writing project a much more enjoyable thing than its end (how, as Winston Churchill put it, a book is a plaything at the beginning but eventually turns tyrant and monster), and the wretchedness to which the rewriting process so often ends — to say nothing of how often writers, like software engineers, find themselves running behind schedule, making the process that much more miserable.

Originally published at https://raritania.blogspot.com.

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Nader Elhefnawy

Nader Elhefnawy is the author of the thriller The Shadows of Olympus. Besides Medium, you can find him online at his personal blog, Raritania.