Guest Post: Sunk Costs in Writing

Because of the awesomeness of all my followers, I managed to secure a guest post from one of my good blogging friends, Leinad.  He’s been around for quite a while and has many good ideas and arguments about what I say, and even better ideas and arguments over at his own blog.  In his post he takes an interesting spin on writing motivation— I hope you enjoy it.

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Hey, I’m Leinad — also known as Keras. You probably know me as the fellow who writes all those long, but pretty harmless essays in the comments section of this blog. If you participated in the December Teens Can Write Too blog-chain, however, you will know that I’m a much more dangerous sort of bore: I’m the guy who wanted to be the economist of Middle Earth. That’s right, I’m the one who wanted to take your favourite fictional world and curse it with the most diabolical brand of monotonous quasi-science. And I won’t stop there. The next victim of my economics-obsession will be your favourite hobby: fiction-writing.

Specifically, today, I want to talk about sunk costs in writing. Now, a sunk cost may seem like a boring, economic concept whose only redeeming feature is that it contains only words of one syllable. (If you are a particularly verbose writer, even that may not be a redeeming feature). To me, however, sunk costs are fascinating, and relevant to almost every aspect of life.

So what is a sunk cost? A sunk cost is a cost you’ve already incurred, or a price you’ve already paid. Imagine John spent $1 buying the first lot of bricks for the new skyscraper he’s building. He can’t get that $1 back (skyscraper brick-sellers are notoriously stingy), it’s sunk. Similarly, maybe he spent an hour laying the first row of bricks for his skyscraper. He can’t get that hour back (assuming the Doctor doesn’t stop by), it’s sunk.

Now that sounds pretty straightforward — and it is. But what makes sunk costs so fascinating is the fallacy connected with them, which economists call the fallacy of sunk costs. The fallacy of sunk costs is the idea that because you’ve paid a price for something, you should keep at it and finish the job. John has spent $1 buying bricks, and he can’t get it back, so he should follow through and buy the rest of the bricks. He’s spent an hour laying the bricks, so he should follow through and spend another hour. Never mind that it turns out bricks are awful for building skyscrapers. Never mind that he realises he should have taken Bricklaying 101 before he started, and the first wall is all crooked (even though he’s only laid one row). Now he’s started, he better finish.

Maybe that sounds a bit ludicrous. But the fallacy of sunk costs is something we humans are very good at falling for.

It happens on a massive scale. Think of the Vietnam War. By 1968, anyone with sense had realised the US and its allies couldn’t win short of dropping a nuclear bomb. But they’d spent billions of dollars and lost thousands of lives, so how could they quit now, after sinking such a heavy cost? So they dragged out the war till 1973.

It also happens on a tiny scale. Think of all the times when you’ve been writing, but you’ve got distracted and opened a web browser. Once you open it, you’re smitten by conscience — and yet you always visit at least one site before you quit the browser. If you don’t, it would be a waste of the five seconds you spent opening it. (Of course, I never do this. Ever.)

Once you see what a massive problem this fallacy of sunk costs is, it should come as no surprise that it is highly applicable to the process of writing fiction.

Very often, in writing, I stick with an idea because I have spent time and effort trying to make it work. I have a plan for how the story should go, and I’ve put effort into making my plan, so I feel like I have to stick with it. Another idea might come along — and maybe, it almost seems like a better idea — but I’ve spent time on this one, so to chase the other idea would be a waste.

Therein lies the fallacy. If the idea new is really a better, I should go after it. Sunk costs have no bearing: the only things that should factor in my decision are the future costs and benefits of sticking to my plan versus the future costs and benefits of abandoning it (where “costs”, are time and effort required for making either idea work, and “benefits” are the expected quality of either final product). It’s your basic cost/benefit analysis, but the sunk costs shouldn’t feature in that analysis at all.

In this respect, I think pantsers are better off than plotters. When they have an idea, they seize it — they follow the trail where it leads. We plotters, however, map out the story beforehand. That in itself is not bad — the trouble, I think, is when we become too wary of abandoning the map. We’ve spent time drawing the map, surely to leave it behind would be a waste? But remember, the time you spent drawing the map shouldn’t factor in the analysis at all. The very fact that you have a map probably makes it a good idea to follow it, most of the time. But when you spot a flaw in the map, don’t try to keep driving in that direction. Do a U-turn. The time you spent drawing the map means nothing.

I think the very most important time to consider (or rather, ignore) sunk costs in your writing is when you finish the first draft and begin thinking about rewrites. By this stage, your story will be very dear. You’ve poured so much time, so much emotion, so much energy into it, trying to make your story into exactly what you wanted it to be. All you can think of doing now is continuing to try and mould the story to fit your original vision.

I challenge you to think of your story in a different way. At risk of wasting an allusion: press the Forget button. Forget your past struggles. Forget what you were trying to achieve. Forget that stupid road-map of your story you wrote at the beginning. Now is the time to look at your novel with fresh eyes. (Or if you don’t like that cliché: to look at it through new reading glasses. Or through Great-Aunt Josephine’s contact lenses.). Now is the time to see the manuscript in front of you not as your novel, but as a block of text that you’ve hitherto had nothing to do with. It is time to see not what you wanted to create before, but rather what you can create now. Ask yourself: what’s the best route from this shabby block of text to the next great 21st century novel? Identify the route, then take it. Work with what you’ve got, not with what you were trying to have.

Something that can really help with this, is showing your manuscript to someone else. Ask somebody who doesn’t know much about your story to read through it critically and give you some feedback. Is there anything that doesn’t feel quite right? Is there anything that seems irrelevant? New readers can be incredibly useful, because they haven’t had a chance to develop the blindness of attachment. Nothing in your story means anything to them, except for what it actually accomplishes. So that scene you’ve put so much time into, but that doesn’t really work? They’ll be able to tell you it doesn’t work, without feeling burdened by sunk costs.

That doesn’t mean they’ll always be right. That doesn’t mean you should do everything they say. Ultimately, you should be writing for yourself, and sometimes your reader might just have different preferences to you. But always carefully consider what these readers are saying, because their lack of sunk costs gives them a major advantage over you.

I realise this post may raise questions or disagreements, and I think the comments section would be the perfect place to argue about those. I will quit monologuing now, but before I do, it would be unethical not to mention that much of the inspiration for this post came from the Freakonomics episode “The Upside of Quitting”. If you enjoyed this, you may want to check that out. (Also, you may want to *ahem* check out my blog). Other than that, allow me just one moment to hand a great pile of thank-yous to Liam for letting me defile the awesomeness of his blog with my ramblings, and I will be away. May sunk costs never trouble you again.

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41 thoughts on “Guest Post: Sunk Costs in Writing

  1. Love economic theory, great post 🙂 I totally agree with the sunk cost fallacy when it comes to editing. At that stage, you have to be ruthless! But I could see your theory being misapplied at the early drafting stages. Sometimes a new idea is shiny and exciting and so seems to be superior to the muck we’re currently trudging through. But, if we really got into the new idea, it could have its own problems. Perseverance seems like an important lesson at the drafting stage, so we’re not left with a string of partially started first drafts!

    1. A fellow economic-theory-lover! That’s a really good point, thanks for bringing it up. To drag in another economic concept: in the drafting stage, it might seem like the opportunity cost of persevering with one idea is writing a better idea, but too often it’s not. Often, the opportunity cost of perseverance is going through lots of ideas, unable to make any of them work. In which case, perseverance is a much better option.

  2. *applause* Congratulations, you explained an economics concept wonderfully and showed me how to apply it to writing of all things. I think it’s very true, the points you brought up. We tend to be biased because of these sunk costs. Sometimes, I would think, those are good to consider, but should not be the deciding factor. So…good argument. Excellent post.

    Thank you to Liam and you for sharing. (You for sharing the post, Liam for sharing the, er, stage, as it were.)

    1. *bows* Thanks Amanda, glad my economics could be of service. I agree there are some limits to this idea, though, and with respect to this I would point to claire.luana’s comment above. Sunk costs are much more important to ignore in rewrites than in first drafts.

      1. Yes, I read that comment as well. She does have a good point as well. 🙂 That’s what I had in mind when I said they’d be good to consider, but not necessarily make the deciding factor. I, for one, know I would never finish a first draft if I completely ignored the sunk costs–but usually it’s not the sunk costs that hold me to it, it’s the knowing I have to work on going through with things and that it really is a good idea, it just needs work.

      2. Yes, I think you are pretty much right. I would argue that perseverance with your ideas (in the drafting stage) is usually a good thing, but not because of the sunk costs. Rather (as you say) it’s because of knowing that the idea really is a good one, and that you have to sit down and make it work. If we keep switching ideas but don’t have the ability to follow through with anything, we’ll just be chasing the wind, and won’t get anywhere.

      3. Ah well, if he expects people not to use his lines he should use less… useable ones, I guess. (You wouldn’t believe how often I say “indeed” to people, now, when I have nothing better to say)

  3. I remember the economics of Middle-Earth post! It was great! 🙂 And this one is, too. I’ve never really thought about ignoring sunk costs; I tend to fall into the trap of thinking I must push through when I’ve started something (when I’m not getting distracted from said project, that is). But I think it’s important to remember that our projects take discipline. It would be easy to take your advice in this article as an excuse to give up on things when we want a break from them. Maybe you do need a break, but don’t abandon the project. However, as you said, there are times when the map doesn’t make sense, and you need to make a u-turn. Good post, Leinad!

    1. Why, thanks, I’m glad you have good memories of it (and that you liked this one!).

      Yes, I completely agree with you that discipline is very important. Indeed, without it no novels would be finished at all. At the same time, though, I think that should be carefully counterbalanced with a certain flexibility of ideas (especially after the first draft is done).

      Did you, perchance, use to go as Bluebelle? (Forgive me if I’m wrong — I might be getting you confused with someone else.)

      1. True, true! As with everything, balance is the key! 🙂

        Yes, I did used to go as Bluebelle! I changed to my pen name for reasons of consistency, but I’m flattered that you remember me. 🙂 I’m pretty sure we used to know each other on the OYAN forum, as well.

      2. Yes, indeed 🙂

        OYAN… as in One Year Adventure Novel? That’s interesting, because I did do (or start) that program a couple of years ago, but I don’t remember ever doing anything on the forum. So I guess it must have just been somebody like me!

        I changed my pen-name a while back as well — I used to be Keras the Unknown. I might change it again to my real name, if I ever try to get something published, but Leinad suits me for now.

      3. Weird, I was sure it was you! Haha, there was someone named Leinad on the forum, so that would account for my confusion! 😀

        Well, you know, different things work for different people. 🙂 Leinad fits you.

      4. Well, it would appear that I am not the only Leinad in existence. Or perhaps someone is faking my identity. (Or perhaps I am faking someone else’s identity). But that’s interesting… I think I did make an account — though I don’t remember using it — so I may wander over and see what my username actually was…

        Thanks, glad you think it fits.

      5. I had trouble logging on to the OYAN forums, however in OnePassword my “member display name” is indeed listed as Leinad. That is exceedingly strange — I wouldn’t have thought they would let two people go as Leinad. Maybe I’m going senile and forgetful (at 17) and I actually did use the forums at least once…. Was this Leinad you knew active on the forums?

      6. I know nothing about OYAN’s forums, but there’s probably a way to see if you (or your account, rather…) posted anything, Leinad, like there is on the NaNo site. Perhaps you could find out that way?

      7. Yeah, the Leinad I knew was quite active. And apparently still is… I signed on to the forum (whew, haven’t done that in a while, and checked the whole thing out. Just a case of misunderstanding, I guess, though, if your username was “Leinad”, I didn’t see you on the member list. Weird. *laughs* That was a crazy trip into the past! I’ve seriously been thinking the whole time I followed you that I knew you. Oh well. Now I know you through blogging, so that’s cool.

      8. For some reason I wrote my comment to Amanda without seeing yours at all, Rachelle — maybe we posted at almost the exact same time. Anyway, yes, so I guess now you know two Leinads (and have done for some time without realising!). Who would have thought it was such a common name.

        So yes, Amanda, mystery (sort of) solved 🙂 (At least it seems I’m not going senile and forgetful)

    1. Thanks — I’m glad some of my fascination for economics rubbed off. It doesn’t usually happen that way, I’m afraid — I swear sometimes when I lecture my sisters on the subject they begin to look almost (dare I suggest it?) bored.

      1. I believe that may be a sibling thing. Whenever I mention something I’m passionate about, my brothers get a little glassy-eyed. And “little” may or may not be the right word to use in that sentence…

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