Sunday, January 13, 2013

My 5% Rule

I've been trying for a few years now to be a better writer. Though I've written reports and articles and manuals and emails all my life, those are things people have to read. 

Writing something anyone wants to read is a whole other continent. 

To be honest, the concussions have slowed me down. They’ve thrown up walls I am sometimes unable to climb. Often I feel the problems I'm having in grasping the million mini-skills of writing fiction are insurmountable and I won’t ever be any good.

At those times, I think of my 5% rule. 

Any effort that has the potential to improve my skill by 5% is worthwhile. 

It’s a funny thing, but this has gotten me through every crisis of confidence (or ineptitude) that I’ve faced. Even if it’s extraordinarily difficult, and I’m guaranteed to fail, if in the process my skill has even the potential to improve by 5% then it’s worthwhile and I find a way to finish the attempt.

I don’t have an end goal of “publish this” or “achieve that.” Those kinds of goals work for some people, but not me.

For them, it’s setting a goal and then working one way and another towards it. Satisfaction comes when after many attempts the goal is reached. 

I don't know what my ultimate goals is, and I want satisfaction from the attempts. I need a different approach. This works for me--inching my way toward "better."

It is remarkable how far I have come in this way, because of the volume of my attempts.

Spending a day at the library reading books on writing? 5%
Joining a writer’s group in New Haven? 5%
Attending a monthly writers conference? 5%
Taking a class on story structure? 5%
Consultation with a story doctor online in a forum? 5%
Finding a critique partner? 5%
Reading a book on self-editing and applying it with an editor's help? 5%
Doing National Novel Writers Month for past two years? 5% x 2 = 10%  :)
Getting a mentor? 5%
Writing every freaking day? 5%

If I did just one, I wouldn’t get much better, but doing many? The progress, though not a straight line forward (remember, it’s just the potential—some things actually make me a worse writer, some make me 20% better or more) is indisputable.

I am far better at writing fiction this year than last, and last year than the year before.

If you can labor toward something you care about with no more of a guarantee that the effort might get you 5% closer, then do it over and over again, in every imaginable way. It’s like a magnifying glass—suddenly you’re 50% closer.

I have tried and found this to work in other areas of my life too.

Rather than making strict financial goals (which I can never seem to formulate right or achieve fully), I simply do a dozen or more things that have the potential to make my financial stability 5% better, and voilĂ   I have a saving account and lower debt.

If I want to lose weight, I do a dozen things that have the potential for getting me 5% closer to being a comfortable size.

When a relationship is strained, I do little things that might help get it back on track. I hold my tongue (5%) when they say something nasty. I speak up (5%) when they take advantage or don’t listen. I invite (5%), I praise (5%), I listen (5%), I give (5%) and "suddenly" we’re back in a comfort zone. 
Now those of you math majors out there will realize I will never, in theory, get to any specific goal  by incremental 5% change. Always moving at a small rate of change rate means the changes at the beginning have far more impact than later changes, which over time might be almost indecipherable to other people. 

If you are athletic and your body is strong, then doing something to make it a pinch stronger or more flexible is likely only going to be noticeable to you. 

Does that make it any less worthwhile? 

I tend to take online classes two at a time, if I can manage it. See my strategy in action? And in one I took in November/December I met an author, Melissa McClone, who has published 25 books and counting.

Why does she take a writing class if she has published 25 books and people who read them are happy? 

She says she's always trying to get a little bit better. I find that inspirational.

She's helping me with my writing. I'm betting it will cover my 5% by a long shot.

The absolutely best part is that learning to do something you might have aptitude for but not skill is brutal. Humiliating. Ego-cracking. And that's just the mental process. 

I know someone in her fifties who is doing a tough mudder/warrior dash in March. She looks half-human some days, her body is so beat up by her training regime. But she smiles. I may not see it, maybe she doesn't either, but she's getting there.

Me too.



  1. Lisa, thanks for sharing. I like the concept and the positive attitude. Something to keep in mind: I'm better at writing this year than I was last year!

  2. Hi, Lisa. I appreciate your approach, too. Progress is progress, plus many activities are multi-faceted, so there's no single approach to anything, IMO. Thanks for sharing.