The 20-70-10 model and your writing

Recently I was reading a sports article about the head of the Marlins (I think) who said he uses Jack Welch’s “20-70-10” model from GE to evaluate his roster. Oversimplified, that sort of goes like this: the top 20% of your employees are your “core,” the ones you absolutely must keep, the ones who distinguish your company and make it special. The middle 70% are the “vital 70,” who do adequate work and keep things running. The bottom 10% are the ones you should look to turn over as quickly as possible.

I was explaining this to some people today and said that I was glad I was in the “core” of my current company (which is, of course, a business of one: me), and one of my friends pointed out that I’m also in the bottom 10. So I started thinking about that as a way to think about myself as a writer and as a business.

As a writer, focusing purely on the writing, you know of course that some people are better at some things than others. I have friends who write breathtaking action scenes, friends who write lyrical descriptions, friends with an indefinable wonder to their style, friends who write crisp, crackling dialogue. I think that my “core” skill lies in character–time and again I have heard people say that my characters have become real to them–and perhaps somewhat less so in dialogue (I think I have a lot of room to improve in dialogue, but people seem to like it). Anyway, the point is: as a writer, you can probably identify what your “core” skill(s) are. You probably have a pretty good idea of what your “vital 70” are. You might not write sparkling dialogue, but nobody complains that your characters all sound the same. You might not have Cat Valente lyricism, but you can string a pretty sentence together.

And then there’s the bottom 10. Note that this doesn’t mean your skills in this area are bad, just that we all have an area that we know we need to improve. I think my word use in one sense is okay–I can put together a clever phrase–but I would like to get a touch more lyrical with my prose at times. But what I really think I need to improve is communicating my world-building. I often build incompletely, and communicate less, and so people end up with all sorts of questions. I’m working to improve that by writing a lot more about the world outside the story (in the Calatians work, for instance).

So what do you do with this? Well, I think you look at your top 20 and your bottom 10: the things you do really well and the things you do worst. You want to focus on those, because the things you do well are likely to be the things that make your prose stand out. So if you are an ace at action plots, push yourself. Create amazing, breathtaking action, and show off that skill. But if your dialogue needs work, then turn over that part of your writing. Try new things, read new authors, look for ways to bring that dialogue up into the vital 70.

And yeah, when you get your dialogue to where you’re happy with it, that means something else will drop into the bottom 10. That’s what being a writer is: constantly identifying the things you need to/want to improve, and working to do it. But don’t neglect your core, the thing you do really well, the things that make your work sparkle and shine and set it apart from everyone else’s. Nurture those and keep them happy and do whatever you can to keep improving that.

You can apply this to your business life, too, to the process of writing or the business of being a writer. If you’re great at marketing yourself but bad at meeting deadlines; if you’re a dab hand at editing but first drafts take you forever; if you’re great at reading over contracts but hate public speaking. Nurture what you’re good at, improve what you’re not. It’s a neat way to help focus yourself: sit down and think about your 20-70-10 for half an hour, or ask some friends, and then set yourself some goals. Good luck!

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