Monday, December 29, 2014

The Law of Diminishing Returns

I recently finished my manuscript for my third novel, Shattered Angel, and I’m in edit mode. I think this part of the process stresses me out more than actually writing the novel because there is no definitive end. I could edit and edit and edit... and still my perfectionist brain would want to edit more (and more and more and more...)

Enter the Law of Diminishing Returns.

This law is not just for business processes. If you are not familiar with this law, here’s the definition from

In economics, diminishing returns (also called law of diminishing returns, law of variable proportions, principle of diminishing marginal productivity, or diminishing marginal returns) is the decrease in the marginal (incremental) output of a production process as the amount of a single factor of production is incrementally increased, while the amounts of all other factors of production stay constant.

The law of diminishing returns states that in all productive processes, adding more of one factor of production, while holding all others constant ("ceteris paribus"), will at some point yield lower incremental per-unit returns. The law of diminishing returns does not imply that adding more of a factor will decrease the total production, a condition known as negative returns, though in fact this is common.

Having now self-published two books, I believe this law is one of the most important concepts to implement during the editing processI'm talking about all the edits that take place from the moment I type the final word in my first draft to the moment when I send my manuscript to my proof-reader. Using the definition above for the Law of Diminishing Returns, the two variables in my process are:

Output (return): reader enjoyment
Factor of Production: edits

I know that I could read and revise my manuscript forever. Literally—forever. This is because nothing in life is perfect, and there would be no end to revisions if I didn’t put some sort of arbitrary end date out there. To help keep myself out of the endless abyss of editing, I’ve grouped my editing process into three separate phases:

Phase 1: Quick review
I do this right after I finish the book. I look for obvious errors, inconsistencies, and wording changes. The return in this phase is still relatively high due to the importance. It’s hard for someone to enjoy a book that’s filled with typos and silly mistakes. For example, in my second novel I had realized that the name of one of my secondary characters changed half way through the book. Oops. This is something that’s insignificant in the grand scheme of the entire novel, but it can turn a reader off quickly. The feeling is that if I don’t care about my characters enough to get their names right, why should the reader care about them either?

Phase 2: Beta reader edits
As a self-published author, I can define my own process. Instead of paying for one person to edit my book and receive only one perspective, I like to have several volunteer beta readers. I’m talking in the range of 10-15 people from my target reading audience. If there is a specific topic that requires an expert for validation, I include them in the beta read. I’m also a part of my beta read—this is where I read it on my Kindle and try to become the ‘reader’.

My beta readers tell me exactly what they think—words that annoy them, little things they love, errors, plot inconsistencies, characters they hate/love, how they felt when reading certain parts, etc. I also follow up with some very specific questions on areas that I’m debating on changing. The reason I have so many beta readers is because they all read with a different perspective. One person my love my main character while another may hate him. Seeing the story from so many different angles helps me to determine if there are any perceptions I wish to eliminate, or at least lessen. For example, if someone hates my main character and my goal is for the reader to love him, then I might want to make some tweaks based on that reader’s feedback. The many different perceptions also help me establish patterns—if a vast majority of the beta readers are confused by a certain part then I know I need to change something.

With my second book I started using a tiered process that I think works great. I designate a certain time period for my beta reads—for example the month of December. I then ask my beta readers to sign up for a week with the requirement that they read and send me comments by the end of that week. I give myself some time between the weeks to make any changes/corrections. I started doing this because I found that during the edits on my first book, I’d make changes based on feedback but then didn’t have anyone who could read the updated version. I had to resend certain parts to see what the beta readers thought. With my new process, there is always someone to read the new content. I also let the prior beta readers know about significant content changes I’ve made in case they are interested.

I don’t skimp on this phase of the editing process because it really is where I reach the peak of my returns. Remember, my return is ‘reader enjoyment’ so there’s no better way to affect that then to use feedback from readers in my target group. I don’t change things based on all the feedback, but I’m confident that I’m able to capture the important changes that will affect the reading enjoyment for the majority of my target group.

Really, my beta readers are awesome.

Phase 3: Endless tweaks
This is where the return on edits drops significantly. Without a deadline from a publisher forcing me to cut it off, this phase could go on forever. I could adjust the way a sentence is worded or add/remove content until the day I die. However, changes in this phase won’t significantly alter the reading experience, positively or negatively. At least it won’t for the majority of the reading population in my target audience. Remembering the Law of Diminishing Returns helps keep me from remaining in Phase 3 too long.

So when you start to edit your manuscript think about the Law of Diminishing Returns, and don’t get caught in the endless abyss of Phase 3. It will save you a lot of stress, headaches, and time.

Let us know in the comments how you avoid the pitfall of Phase 3!

~ Carrie


  1. I avoid stage 3 by getting bored. I can only work on something so long before I'm just over it, so sooner or later stage 3 just naturally stops for me

    1. I wish it were that easy for me, Sarah! I might have a slight case of OCD though...

  2. 15 beta readers?!?!?!? Good heavens, I don't think I could handle owing that many favors.

    1. Ha! They all get a free book... and their name in the back acknowledgements :-) And of course my eternal gratitude. It seems to work since they keep signing up for more!

  3. great post, Carrie! So for me, I get SO CAUGHT UP IN EDITS LIKE OH EM GEE. It's ridiculous. I could revise and edit forever. And recently, I've hardly finished a draft for how much I keep changing the main plot. I'm def going nuts. I set a deadline for myself and randomly chose feb 5th to send the MS to my agent (granted it may not actually happen) but she's super sweet and hates to put any kind of pressure on me, so I could seriously just ruminate on an unfinished thing forever. So, my hope is by feb 5th to have something I'm at least somewhat happy with! we shall see. Must not get obsessed with phase 3...MUST NOT. lol

  4. Nice system, Carrie! I've just been staring at my book since I finished it, not really sure how to start the revision process. Might apply yours. Any beta reader volunteers? :)

    1. Good luck, and I hope it works for you too!

  5. Revisions are my favorite parts. I don't edit until the end, when I've restructured the novel. I'm with Steve though. I don't think I even know 15 people to ask to beta.

    1. I am lucky to be surrounded by people who love to read - and critique - books!

  6. I think I would cry if I had to incorporate 15 peoples' critiques! But having that many eyes is great to really spot inconsistencies, and create a much better, stronger story for it. Which in the end, is what all writers want! Or should. =)


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