Writing and the Sunk Costs Fallacy

Not many people know this, but my current manuscript started off as something else entirely. I was about 90k words into the novel, a character driven fantasy set in the foothills of the Himalayas, when I decided I needed to rewrite the thing entirely, reworking my point of view character, my protagonist, even my tense. My antagonist became my protagonist, my past tense narrative became present tense, my third person became first person. The end result (I am on the second draft now) is barely recognizable as the same novel, and yet it is, objectively, a much much stronger piece.

If you’re pondering a re-write but are reluctant to actually commit, likely you’re struggling with something known as the “sunk costs fallacy.” The sunk costs fallacy is the impulse that tells us to keep waiting for the bus because we’ve already been waiting for twenty minutes so if we give up now, that twenty minutes will have been wasted. The sunk costs fallacy tells us we need to stay at a job we hate because we’ve already been there for five years and if we switch tracks now we’ll have wasted those five years. It tells a couple who has been together for a decade that they can’t break up now because then the previous ten years will have been for nothing. For us writers, the sunk costs fallacy tells us that because they’re already 90k words into a novel they had better see it out to the end, otherwise those 90k words will have been wasted.

The truth is, when we invest time, resources, and emotional energy into something, we often hold onto it a lot longer than we otherwise should. We have an attachment to that thing that is no longer connected to the happiness we get from it or the utility it brings, it is purely based upon an irrational idea that giving up on this thing will signify that all previous time spend on said relationship, project, job, or book will have been a ginormous waste. Herein lies the fallacy: whether or not I decide to rewrite my novel, the time I spent on it is irrevocably lost. Continuing to write a novel that I probably should re-write is not going to make the previous time I spent on it any more valuable, any more than continuing in a dead end relationship will justify the previous time spent in the relationship. The costs — time, money, energy, emotion — are sunk already. They’ve been spent, they’re gone, and they’re not coming back. We can sink more costs into them, or we can change track, taking the lessons we’ve learned from the first go round to our new endeavor.

The 90k words I previously wrote were not a waste. Through them, I realized what my narrative was lacking. Namely, the plot was meandering because my main character lacked a clear purpose. You know who did have a clear, and actually rather sympathetic purpose? My antagonist did! Without those 90k words though, I would not have thought of the story in those terms. It became extremely clear to me, almost from the moment that I had the idea, that I needed to do this re-write. The story came together in a much more coherent way, and when I sat down to write it, what came out of my fingers was first person present tense. I showed the sample to a critique partner, asking if the POV and tense, which was not my usual, worked, and I got a resounding thumbs up. So I kept going, and committed to the re-write.

Chances are, if you’re considering a major change, whether it be in your manuscript or in life, somewhere inside you already know that a change needs to take place. When my manuscript just isn’t working on a fundamental level, I know, and while I can try to convince myself otherwise, ultimately I’m just prolonging the inevitable. The thing about sunk costs is that the longer you delay the change, the more those costs accumulate. Every day that I spend toiling over a dead-end manuscript is a day that I spend not fixing the problem, not making progress. My writerly advice to my readers is this: do it. Take the plunge. Rewrite the thing from page one. Don’t worry about wasted time or energy or emotion because it’s already wasted and you’re not getting it back. The only thing you can influence, from here on out, is the project’s future outcome. You know what’s got to be done, so give yourself permission to go ahead and do it.

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