Don’t Let Sunk Costs Sink Your Writing


Know when to move on.

I have a problem acknowledging sunk costs. That’s why there are 20 mostly full bottles of salad dressing in my refrigerator, and why there’s a pair of skinny jeans in my closet. Skinny jeans make me look like a Tootsie Pop from the waist down, but I used the last of my JC Penney rewards to purchase them. They’re on the rack next to the jeggings, or as my fiancé calls them, “those aren’t pants.”

Sunk costs are those expenses that have already been paid and are not recoverable. For example, if you spend $1900 on repairs for your car, that is a sunk cost. The next week you see that your local dealership has a great special on a newer model of your car. Unless you lost your virginity in the back seat of that car in 1983, you shouldn’t consider the $1900 when you are trying to decide whether or not to take advantage of the dealership’s sale. For writers our most valuable sunk cost is our time. How do you decide when to ignore the sunk cost of hours spent?

What is the payoff for finishing?

You’ve spent months working on a first draft of your novel and now you need to invest more time editing. You could scrap the whole thing and start over but then you have to listen to your friends and family asking “When are you going to finish your book?”

In this case the payoff comes when your book is published and you get to corner your friends and family and tell them “I finished my book! Now please read and review it.”

Is the reward greater than the future cost?

You’ve spent 16 hours straight trying to get that story finished by the deadline for the writing contest you entered six months ago and then forgot about. If you ignore the time you’ve put in so far and the $25 entry fee, is the $10 first prize and publication in “Best of the Writers Who Paid to be Here 2018” worth investing more of your life? Shouldn’t you be blogging about nylon hairnets instead and raking in that sweet affiliate link income?

“In writing, you must kill all your darlings.”― William Faulkner

If you’re muttering this in your sleep remind your spouse and children that you’re recovering from a 32 hour NaNoWriMo marathon. Clear your browser history and tell them not to worry. Take a good look at your characters, specifically Lillian Applebottom.

“But I spent days researching Victorian watchmakers! I paid to have her portrait painted!”

Her corseted butt does not belong in your YA Science Fiction Romance novel. Maybe bump her over into that Steam Punk piece you need to start.

Rejection is painful.

I began submitting my work a few years back and I hadn’t experienced that many thumbs down since I posted a picture of me in a tank top on Hot or Not. I learned that the softest focus cannot blur fifty year old triceps.

Count each submission as the first one, but if you’ve sent that story out fifty times, maybe Chicken Stew for the Desperate Writer’s Soul is not the perfect home for it.

When you can’t bear the loss.

Why do we find it so hard to move on when we know there are better things waiting for us? We want the sunk cost of our time recognized. I have a hard drive filled with not-quite-good-enough stories. Maybe I’ll print them out and leave them in my dentist’s waiting room. I’ll bet reading about that pair of sisters struggling through the Great Depression would cheer up someone waiting on a root canal.

Helping each other write better.

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