Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Law of Diminishing Returns

This last week has reacquainted me with two theories of economics and business: the law of diminishing returns and the cost/benefit rule. I'll save the discussion on the cost/benefit rule for another day. For this posting (and the next) I want to focus on diminishing returns.

As simply as I can state it, the law of diminishing returns is that within a given system of inputs, there comes a point where each additional input yields less and less outputs. For writers, this can be re-written as: in a story, there comes a point where too much can distract the reader.

Allow me a couple of illustrations. Back in college, I remember suffering through a class on real estate transactions. The only bright side to the class was that I had to stomach only three hours of lecture time per week. I don't remember much about what the professor tried to teach us--it's been almost fifteen years since then--but I do remember how he consistently applied his mantra: "The point is..." Sadly, I didn't have enough fingers and toes to keep a running count of his worn-out points.

Fast forward with me to just last year. There I was, sitting in a meeting with a group of professionals, and one of the members kept talking about "The Bottom Line". I can still remember looking down in front of the man next to me. On a sheet of paper, he had scratched out the words The Bottom Line. Underneath his header, I saw the following:

After that, I don't remember much about what the first member said.

As writers, we have to be mindful about the impact our choices make. One of my readers is Greta Igl. She's an amazing writer, and she has a fine gift for pointing out my overuse of phrases and unnecessary language. On one of my manuscripts, she pointed out that I had written the same word a couple of times within two paragraphs of each other. The implied argument was clear. Using the word once was fine. Using it twice could draw the reader's attention away from the story, a negative side effect that I wanted to avoid. I killed the first use.

The over-use of an everyday word is not the only way to have an unwanted consequence. In my opinion, using profanity, an unusual word, or even a technical word, that forces readers to stop is a big time no-no, and this applies to both narrative and dialogue.

Unfortunately, there is no hard and fast rule here. The writer can't perform a word search and then say, "Oops, I used that one too many times." Every reader is different. What one reader may pass through, another will put on the skids. As such, it's a gut call on the writer's part. Some of the times she'll catch the potential problems and kill them, and other times she'll need someone to proof the story and point out the dangers.

In my next posting, I'll look at this law of diminishing returns as it applies to the writer instead of the story.

Stay tuned...


  1. A great post, Stephen, for many reasons.

    First, this Greta person sounds amazing. Wow! You are so lucky to know her :)

    Ok, just kidding.

    Seriously, I like two things about this post:

    One, you cover good ground. Diminishing returns is a terrific analogy. As writers we need to make smart choices so every word has maximum impact.

    Two, you used a teaser, luring me back next time. That's just plain smart writing. You always think of stuff I don't.

    Good job. And thanks for the nice thing you said about me. You're a pal.

  2. And sometimes repeating a word or phrse is the RIGHT thing to do. You are correct - it's all in the gut. Looking forward to next post - is the act of writing itself a diminishing return? Peace, Linda