The Pareto Principle for Writers

The Pareto Principle is the 80/20 Rule. It’s an economic concept stating roughly 80 percent of effects come from 20 percent of causes. Put otherwise, 20 percent of input accounts for 80 percent of output.

The name comes from its conception maker, Vilfredo Pareto, who was a nineteenth-century Italian polymath. Story goes that one day old Vilfredo was out working in his garden and observed that about 80 percent of his peas came from around 20 percent of his pea plants. That got him thinking, and he applied his 80/20 observation to economics.

Pareto discovered that 80 percent Italy’s wealth was held by 20 percent of the Italian population. Note this was in 1900, so adjusting for today’s imbalance via the mega-lopy of Gates, Musk, Bezos & Zuckerberg ‘et al’, the real ratio might be more like 90/10 or 95/5. You get my drift.

I’ll partially quote from the Pareto holy grail authority which is a 273-page academic paper titled The Pareto Principle — The Secret to Achieving More With Less by Richard Koch. You can download it for free here.

The 80/20 Principle asserts that a minority of causes, inputs, or efforts usually leads to a majority of results, outputs, or rewards. Taken literally, this means that, for example, 80 percent of what you achieve in your work comes from 20 percent of the time spent. Thus, for all practical purposes, four-fifths of the effort—the dominant part of it—is largely irrelevant. This is contrary to what people normally expect.

So, the 80/20 Principle states there’s an inbuilt imbalance between causes and results, inputs and outputs, and efforts and rewards. A good benchmark for this imbalance is provided by the 80/20 relationship: a typical pattern shows that 80 percent of outputs result from 20 percent of inputs, that 80 percent of consequences flow from 20 percent of causes, and that 80 percent of results come from 20 percent of efforts.

In business, many examples of the 80/20 Principle have been validated. 20 percent of products account for 80 percent of dollars per sale. So do 20 percent of customers.

In society, 20 percent of criminals account for 80 percent of crimes. 20 percent of drivers account for 80 percent of accidents. 20 percent of students attain 80 percent of the educational qualifications available.

In the home, 20 percent of carpets receive 80 percent of wear. 20 percent of your clothes, you’ll wear 80 percent of the time. And if you have a burglar alarm, 80 percent of false alarms will be set off by 20 percent of the possible causes.

Another example of the 80/20 rule is the internal combustion engine in your car. 80 percent of the fossil fuel energy input is wasted with only 20 percent of output energy being delivered to the drive wheels.

So, what about applying the Pareto Principle to writers?

For writers, the Pareto Principle is a time management and production output tool. It’s not meant to be precise… as it in can’t be 60/40 or 75/25, only 80/20… it’s not that bracketed… not that prescriptive… not that anal. But it’s a good rule of thumb to know about avoiding time distractions and focussing on the important, yet small percentage, of tasks that give the highest return in creating value.

It comes down to managing what available time you have to effectively produce and promote a product. That might be a blog post like this, a novel manuscript, a screenplay, or whatever you have on the go. Your WIP.

Here’s a link to another piece on the Pareto Principle from Simply Psychology that gives direct examples of how to manage time, minimize distractions, and complete tasks. I like this quote:

When used correctly, the Pareto Principle helps prioritize tasks, optimize resources, and improve overall efficiency. It provides a useful framework for understanding complex systems and identifying key areas for improvement.

When not used correctly, the Pareto Principle can lead to an excessive focus on short-term gains over long-term planning and stability.

The 96 Minute Rule

A great point from Simply Psychology that puts time consumption in context is the 96-minute rule. 20 percent of an 8-hour workday is 96 minutes. According to the Pareto Principle, 80 percent of your daily work accomplishments come from 96 minutes of your time. As a writer, what high-value tasks do you most accomplish in those 96 minutes that push forward your long-term goals?









To wrap, the Pareto Principle’s 80/20 rule isn’t a magic formula. It’s a hypothesis to be aware of and use as a tool to get where you want to go in your writing world just a little more efficiently. And maybe it’ll free up time to have fun in the rest of your life.

Kill Zoners — Do you consciously apply the 80/20 rule in your workday? What’s your experience with it? Any direct tips on making it work? And does anyone have other production aids and/or time management suggestions? Please comment.

Is Speed Reading Efficient for Writers?

There’s a famous quip from Woody Allen that goes like this, “I took a course in speed reading. I read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It was about Russia.” There’s a lot of truth in those lines because when writers read for research (and pleasure) they need to find that balance between speed, comprehension, and production. It all comes down to efficiency.

Some folks naturally read faster than others. During my research for this Kill Zone piece, I sourced statistics that the average person reads at the speed of about 200 to 250 words per minute (wpm). That’s like a typical 12 point page spaced at 1.15 inches in 60 seconds. Speed demons can go as high as 400 wpm, but there’s a distinct line where speed becomes counter-productive, and the ability to comprehend and retain those words drastically diminishes.

Other stats I found compared reading speed to conversation cadence. Most of us talk at about 150 wpm which, I read, is the optimal spacing for podcasting and audio books. Cattle auctioneers bark at around 250 wpm, and I once worked with a cop who spoke so fast that no one could understand him—probably blurting out about 300 or more. It was a thing of beauty to listen to his evidence in court.

Here are some other speed reading tidbits.US President John Kennedy reportedly read three major newspapers before his morning coffee cooled. JFK’s rate was around 1,100 and he, himself, said it was his ability to skim for what he was interested in. The World Speed Reading Championship has a six-time winner, Anne Jones, who read at 4,200 wpm with a recorded comprehension at 67 percent.

Then there’s Kim Peek. He’s a savant who has memorized over 9,600 books. No one knows how he does it because Kim’s corpus callosum has been missing since birth. That’s the nerve bundle connecting the right and left cerebral hemispheres.

Anyway, back to us mortal writers. We have to read to be able to produce writing. Most of us, myself included, are bookies. We love to read as well as write. Like me, you’re probably a closet bibliomaniac who practices the art of tsundoku. (I linked these words to Wikipedia—you’re welcome.)

Another quote, while I’m in quoting mode, is from Stephen King himself who savantly said, “To be a good writer you must do two things. Read a lot and write a lot. If you don’t have the time for reading, then you do not have the tools for writing.” I’ll take King’s advice any day, but the 64-thousand dollar question is, “How do I read quickly but still write efficiently?”

To start with, there are certain limitations built into us writing mortals. They involve interactions between the eye and the brain. Brains are linguistically programmed through instinct. We naturally learn to speak. However, we have to be taught to read, and then we have to practice. A lot, if we’re going to be good readers who can efficiently transpose information into intelligible writing.

When you look at images on a page—letters, words, sentences, paragraphs, and symbols—light reflects from the page or screen to the back of your retina. Here a tiny, dot-like feature called your fovea centralis takes the information and passes it to your cerebral cortex for processing. Your cortex decides whether to use the information, store it, or chuck it.

As amazing as your fovea is, it has a limited capacity to function with speed. Foveas are focused fellas, and they only see about three words at a time. That’s because only so much light passes into cell cones in the center of the fovea. Light coming from peripheral page regions, like words to the left and right, fades into the fog of cell rods that aren’t so good at transmitting useful reading information.

There’s more to this reading science than meets the eye. You’re programmed to read in small chunks at a time. Reading scientists call this fixations and saccades. Fixations are the spots where your fovea stops and saccades are the jerk actions between the stops that keep your eye moving across the page.

From what I read and retained, your fovea fixation lasts from about a quarter-second to a full-second. This depends on your mental focus and how much your brain decides that particular info-bit is worth to you. A saccade period is about a tenth-second. Saccades are pretty predictable, and the only control you have is to decide how much you want to skim.

You can’t will or teach your fovea to act faster or look farther. It’s only going to take in about three words between stops. What you can do, however, is to exercise your cortex to retain more, and that comes from reading lots.

When you read a lot, you become more familiar with words that your brain can find useful. You expand your vocabulary as well as your overall knowledge. More understood and informative words equals higher efficiency when it comes to reading fast and retaining more. However, there comes a point where you’re reading too fast and miss too much.

So, is there such a thing as efficient speed reading? A balance? Well, let’s look back to where this craze came from and went to. Travel back to 1958 and meet Evelyn Wood who wrote Reading Skills. She was a Utah school teacher who used a three-point system to make her kids better readers. Evelyn recognized these three efficient reading methods:

Method 1 — Take more information in at a time. She encouraged scanning by moving a finger or pen across a page to increase saccade action.

Method 2 — Eliminate subvocalization. This is the little voice in your head that wants to read out loud rather than be still and absorb information.

Method 3 — Eliminate regressive eye movements. Evelyn encouraged students to read it right the first time and not to keep going back over things.

Evelyn Wood was probably the mother of all speed reading courses. She went on to offer Reading Dynamics and made a ton of money by teaching adults to read faster and absorb better. Some historians question Wood’s effectiveness at significantly improving speed, but you can’t argue with her worldwide exposure.

Forward to 2020 and the app age. This speed reading thing hasn’t gone away. Google “speed reading” and you’ll find tools like Spritz, Spreeder, Outread, Acceleread, and Reedy to help reduce your TBR pile. Do any of these apps really work? I don’t know, because I have my own system for researching and writing that I’d like to share with you.

As I mused, there’s a balance between time and efficiency. It depends on what you want to do with your reading material. I’m not one to “speed read” a novel, but it pays to rip through resource material as quickly as possible to write an article like this.

Case Study: Is Speed Reading Efficient for Writers?

I spent five hours researching this post. I have a fair amount of experience doing online articles, as I spent two years working with my daughter in her content writing agency. That business pays by the article. Not the word count or by time. A typical content piece is 2,200 words and to make a decent hourly return, you have to be somewhat speedy in reading your research.

I used the keywords “Speed Read” to “Google” information. I found 14 suitable articles online ranging from Psychology Wiki (which I had no idea existed—you’re welcome again) to Wired, Lifehacker, and the BBC. I copied the content and pasted it on a Word.doc which is what I religiously do for research. I formatted the doc in Ariel 10 point with 1.15 spacing and set the color on black with a white background.

Then, I printed each article on 8 ½ x 11 and went at them with a yellow highlighter and a red pen. I used a side page for black-inked notes. By this time, my cortex knew what it was looking for so, as my fovea followed my saccade spacing, I yellow-highlighted interesting stuff and red underlined really interesting stuff. I then made black notes of key points and I moved it along.

The printed 14 documents contained 21,823 words. That’s an average of 1,559 per piece. Out of the 5 hours in research time, about 2 ½ were spent in reading the printed docs and making notes. 2 ½ hours is 150 minutes, so my words-per-minute was 145. That’s no speed demon by any measure.

However, my comprehension, retention, and piece production were (in my opinion) reasonably efficient. Sure, I could probably have scanned the stuff at 3 times the rate. But, I wouldn’t have been able to efficiently write this 1,593-word article in 1.75 hours. That’s composing at 906 words per hour or 15.1 words per minute.

Do I have room to increase my writing efficiency? Certainly. Probably we all do. But is speed reading to save research time worth the reduced value of the final product? I say no.

What about you Kill Zoners? What’s your view on speed reading, and what tips on writing efficiency do you have? Please drop them in the comment box.


Garry Rodgers is a retired homicide detective with a second career as a coroner investigating sudden, strange, and unexplained deaths. Now Garry has reinvented himself as an indie writer who’s working on a series of based-on-true-crime stories. His latest venture, Beyond The Limits – Book #7, is scheduled for release in early January, 2021.

Besides writing at the Kill Zone and on his popular blog at, Garry Rodgers spends his spare time putting around the saltwater near his home on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada. To his aghast, there was a skim of frost on Garry’s windshield this morning.