Diminshing Returns

As a kid, there was a boy named Cole in my group of friends and he was a far better athlete than the rest of us. Cole was fast, he had endurance, he was strong, and he was successful in any endeavor that involved the control of his body. He was the fiercest competitor in gym class, and was regularly on the winning team.

In gym class, running the mile was expected of everyone. Cole was usually a full minute ahead of the nameless person who came in second place, and we always said it was close.

Watch the Olympics. Victories are only victories by a fraction of a second. Trained athletes have a smaller gap between them than, say, kids in gym class. The better you get, the harder it is to get better and the less room there is to improve.

One further example. A new runner, in a month, may go from a 10 minute mile to a 9 minute mile. An experienced runner may have a 6 minute mile, and then after a month of training their mile is 5 minutes and 51 seconds. And that is a huge difference at that level. That is what we call diminishing returns.

When I first began writing seriously, I was proud of myself to have written my first novel. It wasn’t good, it hadn’t been edited, and the syntax was weak. Now, as a more experienced writer, I am unhappy with the result of my work. I know what I am capable of. A new writer makes large strides in writing a novel, in writing 200 words a day for a month, in editing their poetry. An experienced writer has no such pleasure, because they are capable a more. It would be like Beethoven teaching a child to play Mary Had a Little Lamb, it is no longer a challenge, it is no longer growth.

As artists, we crave growth. We crave the improvement of our work. And as we get better, that improvement is both smaller and harder to achieve. Once you know you are able to write a novel, the next step is editing the novel. Once you can edit, you need to be able to break down sentences syntactically. There is an ever expanding list of ways to improve, and each is more tedious than the last.

This is dangerous for artists because, as I said, we crave growth. When growth stops being as noticeable, our productivity takes a hit. We feel like we aren’t getting anywhere, or that our work is becoming monotonous. The only advice for this situation is to carry on, because your work is improving. It may not seem noticeable, it may be the difference between two words in a sentence, but your work can always improve, your voice can always become stronger, your imagery can always be more clear. Press on, because the difference between being a good writer and a great writer is the fraction-of-a-second difference that you don’t yet notice.

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