Sunk Costs: The Value of Quitting

The slogans zing at writers everywhere we go, from tree-dangling kittens on social media to well-meaning cocktail party guests. Keep the Faith. Never Give Up. Butt in Chair. And we spoon feed it to ourselves as well, suckling at the teat of those old stories about writers finally getting published after years of work and rejection, from John Kennedy Toole to Dr. Seuss. There are times, however, when every writer should just throw in the towel.

To be sure, writing a novel takes an enormous amount of faith and discipline, often over several years. Like those nutty folks who run Ironman triathlons, we must spend eons working for something we don’t know we will ever really complete. So what’s the difference between tenacity and stubbornness? When should a writer stop working on a piece or see it through to completion?

Economics has a concept of sunk costs that basically goes like this: each and every new investment in a project should be weighed in terms of the expected return on that new investment, not on the premise of the investment already made. Nice in theory, but humans are terrible in practice. It’s simply against our nature to give up and walk away from a previous investment, be it money or time. I’ve seen normally great investors keep pushing to complete a deal that will no doubt turn sour just because they can’t stand to write off six months’ worth of work. Likewise, the temptation that this one more investment will save the whole shebang is greater than most of us can resist. After all, that’s what keeps those Nigerian prince scams going. Each call convinces the mark that if he ever wants to see his cash again, he needs to pony up even more money.

Writers do the same thing. How many times have we heard that lament in workshop, but I can’t just give up the two hundred pages I’ve already written? How many times have we said that ourselves? Of course the world needs an entire novel told from the perspective of a caged liger at the zoo. What could be wrong with that premise? And so we drag ourselves to the computer and keep going because we can’t face the idea of flushing all that time. We have no more fire for the project. Each tap of the keyboard sucks a little bit more of our soul. We try to come up with last-ditch ideas: I know, I’ll add a lemur as an antagonist! That will fix it!

When investing, there are metrics to ascertain an expected return from additional investment. Sales, profits, customers, clicks—something that is quantifiable and while it requires extrapolation, there’s at least a starting point. Writing isn’t objective. If we were to apply a cost/benefit analysis to this kind of work we’d all be slinging fries at a fast food restaurant. Any additional investment in a writing project is by definition irrational. Maybe, though, it doesn’t have to be so. There are hints. Although a dangerous practice, we can take cues from fellow workshop participants. Golly, I just can’t seem to break through to the liger’s real motivations at any point in the work. Mostly, however, we know the answer ourselves. No matter how tired we are of the work or how much we’d rather plop down in front of House of Cards instead of the keyboard, after a few minutes of reading a worthwhile piece, we will find something redeeming. When that loving feeling is gone altogether is the time to rethink whether it makes sense to put another callous on our fingertips for the work at hand.

There’s another economic concept that applies here as well: opportunity cost. Every moment we spend putting words into the liger’s mouth is time we could have spent writing something else. This concept reframes the original question. Instead of dreading the idea of having wasted so much energy on a failed project we can see the future energy that could be used to create something more artistically promising. So it isn’t just costing us friends, fitness and eyesight to keep chugging away, but a full realization of our capabilities.

This isn’t simple stuff. It’s a fine line between being a quitter and making an informed, mature decision. I won’t pretend to be above throwing myself on the kitchen floor in a martini-fueled tantrum upon realizing that another moment spent on a manuscript is a waste of creative energy. There are the usual stages: denial, anger, grief. But a relief eventually comes when you can sit before a blank sheet of paper and not have to try to think about whether the liger would use American English or the Queen’s.

Unlike those triathletes, writers have a distinct advantage. Whereas from the moment they stop training triathletes’ muscles begin to decline, all that wasted writing has only honed ours. Each word we write makes us better at writing the next one. Being able to make peace with sunk costs, realize that no matter how many doughnut crumbs we drop into the keyboard, there’s no saving some projects will only allow the practice to shine through in something else.


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