Revisions and the Pareto Curve

I’ve been asked by quite a few people what happens during the revisions process. Revisions, of course, start early on, in the querying process, or at least they should. Every time I got feedback from an agent that I agreed with, I changed the manuscript and resubmitted it. When I finally found an agent, I received feedback from him as well, and changed it again.

In terms of the publication process, I’m not sure what happens to other authors but I got a letter from my editor setting out broad comments and concerns about the manuscript, and then, in a separate document, a line by line edit of the manuscript itself, including specific comments.

I kept thinking, as I was working through the revisions, of  negotiations.

I trained in negotiations at Harvard many years ago. One of the more useful concepts I took away from that training was the notion of the Pareto Curve. It is that convergence of economy and outcome, after which one could invest more time and perhaps achieve more gains but will lose in efficiency.

As Roger Fisher used to put it, any agreement is evidence that you could have had a better one. You can always do a little better if you stay at the table longer, but there comes a point where you’ve achieved a pretty good outcome, and to carry on negotiating in the hope of achieving a better one becomes impractical, and risks losing the deal altogether.

Fisher used what he called a one-text in negotiations, including during his work on the Camp David Accord.

It was a single document that he worked on as negotiations progressed. He would prepare a draft of a proposed agreement for circulation. He would tell the parties to rip that draft apart, and then he would revise the draft, based on their input, and submit it back to them for more comments. This carried on over dozens of drafts until he hit the point where he felt they could no longer achieve productive changes. To carry on further would be a waste of time, given the diminishing returns. At that point, they needed to decide if the agreement they’d reached was good enough to accommodate their respective interests and if they could live with it.

What I’ve learned over the years is that there is no perfect agreement. There is probably no perfect book either. Because there’s always the possibility that if you did a little more, worked a little harder, it might be even better.

Revisions have been difficult for me because I’m the type of person who doesn’t want to stop picking away at this, and I have to.  I have a  busy career, and I’m running short on time.

 I’m sure that I will find something in my book once it’s on the shelves that I don’t like, and I’ll be sneaking into Chapters with a pen to correct it, like that artist who keeps sneaking into the Louvre with his paintbrush to touch up his art. But I hope that at the end of this process, we  (myself, my agents and my editor) feel like we collaborated to create something that was  better than when we started, and something we can all not only live with, but be proud of.

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