May 15, 2009

the first 40%

I was cleaning out files this evening and had an envelope in my hand to pitch when I flipped it over and saw this statement from Deb. I was on the phone with her at the time, and we were trying to finish up a project when she said the following:

"I always forget that the initial work takes 40% of the time."

Her statement lays out a problem most of us deal with over and over and over. We have in our heads an idea of the work to be done on a project. We reach the end point. And then we do all of the things that must be done for a completed project to move from our own personal brains out into the world. You know: the other 60% that's not done - heck, usually it's not even started.

The tenet applies to projects of all sizes. Deb and I were probably completing a book proposal when she made the statement, but I ran into the 60% this week while finishing my column for Today's Woman magazine. Got the big scene written that was to constitute the piece and drew what I thought was the conclusion -- except it only took up two sentences, and that was stretching it. Where I come from, that means there's something more important to say, if only I can determine what it is. I made a few reference phone calls, walked the dog a time or two, and generally bored myself half to death. Finally, I remembered a second story, one told to me years ago, that shifted my understanding of what I thought I was talking about.

I'd have guessed I'd done 90% of the work when I completed that first run at writing. Turns out Deb was correct, though: I was only at about 40%. With the new story included and a segue to glue the two stories together, I was at 100% -- unless you count the cliches and flat diction sprinkled here and there. Once the whole piece is at 100%, I do one or two (okay, three) final look-sees. That's my chance to plump up the pillows and straighten the comforter and put a vase containing a yellow posie on the dresser. That's my chance to end up with a piece that when I see it again in a few months or years I'll find something in it to admire, even if I disagree completely with my own conclusions. And that's how I reach tranquility in my professional life.

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