One day in my college social psychology class my professor asked the class “How long is the Mississippi river?” The first student guessed that the river was 600 miles long. He went around the room asking everyone how long the river was and the answers ranged from 500 miles to 1200 miles with most being under 1000 miles. If you live in the United States you probably know that the Mississippi River spans the length of the US from north to south–a length much longer than 600 miles. The Mississippi river is actually 2370 miles long. Why were the answers so far off then?
Before the class started the professor had told the first student to say 600 miles in order to demonstrate something called the anchoring and adjusting effect. When a person doesn’t know the answer to something the first thing they hear will anchor them in a belief and anything after that becomes a small adjustment. This effects everything from the prices you are willing to pay for something — you don’t know the value of something so a sales price seems like a good deal– to what is considered socially acceptable.
It also effects how many drafts you will have to write before your novel is finished. I realized this recently when I started the fourth draft of my novel in progress. The first draft was a horrible mess. It required significant plot restructuring, cutting out entire characters, adding scenes so that it flowed smoothly. Going from the second to the third draft seemed easy in comparison, requiring mostly smoothing of the scenes so that the new structure made sense. When I finished it, I thought all I would need to do for the fourth draft was go in and fix some of the mechanics and grammar and it would be done.
When I printed out the fourth draft and started reading I realized something– of my changes up to that point had been an attempt to keep as much as possible. My mind had been anchored in the idea that this is what the story was and while some of the changes had seemed big they were based on the assumption that the underlying story was sound and if I just tweaked it here and there it would end up something worth reading. While my adjustments to the original story had made it better the improvements were incremental. The draft I am now working on still requires some significant rework.
Many of the questions to myself had been an attempt to make what was already there work instead of questioning whether things needed to be there at all. I like some elements so much it’s hard to imagine they shouldn’t be there. This was true for the small levels, how a paragraph was laid out, to the larger levels, the structure and plot.
My goal for future novels is to be able to find the more issues on the first revision and to complete novels in fewer drafts. To do this, I will:
Every character– Do they need to be in the book? Are they the right age? Have the right occupation? Are they too much like other characters in the book?
Every scene- Is there tension? Does it move the story forward?
Every setting- is there a better, more interesting location?
Every backstory- is this relevant? Does it move the story forward or help to understand the past?
Does that subplot need to be there?
Is this the best opening for the story?
And so on.
On my latest read through I came to the scene that was the original spark for the novel. It was interesting snippet, showed the character’s personalities well but didn’t have much relevance to the story otherwise. My little adjusting soul says, “Make it relevant, then,” but is that the best solution? If you (or I) want to make sure this draft is the last one you have to consider that those parts you love may not be the best thing for this story. They may be just right but you have to stand back and assess it as honestly as you can.
Have a system
A long time ago, before I was a rockstar (heh), I was an internal auditor. Auditing is a job that requires some creativity, as you often have to step into a situation and learn what’s there before you can begin testing to see if what should be there is there. It’s something that’s difficult to explain without going into a lot of boring detail. Let’s just stick with, it requires creativity but you always want to go in with certain things you are looking to find. How you find them will depend on the situation.
I think it’s the same with writing. There are certain things that are necessary for a good story but how you get there is going to depend on the situation. I’ve been working on developing my own checklists so that when I go through and edit I don’t forget to look at elements. See question everything above.
Every writer has them, from big things to small things. This isn’t a bad thing necessarily. Cumulatively they make up your voice as a writing and will give your books a feel that readers can recognize. When it becomes a problem is if all your stories and books start to sound and feel exactly the same. I think we’ve all read those books by authors where they are writing from a different character’s point of view but the characters all sound the same.
I’m always discovering new repetitive quirks in my stories and trying to weed them out. For example, why do my main characters often have only one living parent? Is that actually right for the story I’m writing or am I just falling into familiar thought patterns?
A better first draft
Logically, if your anchor was close to the right location to begin with it is going to take less time to adjust it. I know shitty first drafts are all the rage, and you can’t edit a blank page etc etc. Trust me, your draft is going to be shitty whether you do it on purpose or not. Whether you are a plotter or a pantster there are ways to make the first draft better, which is possibly topic for another blog post. Or twenty.
That’s my current plan for learning to make adjustments faster so I can finish novels with fewer drafts. How do you overcome the anchoring effect in your writing?