Game Theory in Writing Part 2: Gamifying Your Submission Process

written by David Steffen

This is the second article in a series considering the applications of game theory on writing. Game Theory is the study of strategic decision making. I won’t get into the mathematics of it, just high level concepts. The first article in the series discussed differentiating between goals and milestones.

Much of focus of Game Theory centers around “gamifying” everyday decisions, giving them a goal and a way to keep score to determine how well you’re meeting that goal. One thing that writers can struggle with is keeping stories in circulation–you can’t sell stories if you don’t submit them–so for this article I’ll be considering ways to keep score that encourage the behavior you want.

The Wrong Behavior

Some rules that seem entirely sensible can actually encourage the wrong behavior (“wrong” as in contradictory to the behaviors you want to pursue). For instance, I know some people who use acceptance percentage. Sounds good, right? A newbie starts with 0%. You might imagine that a big name might have, I don’t know, above 50% (I’m not saying that’s actually a reasonable number, but one might imagine it is).

But consider the consequences. When you’re a saleless newbie, no problem. If the fraction is 0/1 or 0/2 or 0/100, it all comes out to 0% acceptance. But someday you get a sale, let’s say it’s your 100th resolved submission. Calloo! Callay! You have raised your acceptance ratio to 1%. Wonderful news!

But what happens next? You want to keep submitting other stories, right? So you can sell more, get your stories to more people, crack all your favorite magazines, right? But… you think to yourself, what if that submission gets rejected? Then my acceptance ratio would be 1/101. What if the next 99 are rejections too? That would bring your acceptance ratio to 0.5% and you’re now half as successful as you had been. So, maybe you’ll just wait until you see a submission opportunity that you’re certain you can nail with no risk.

Look what your scoring system has gotten you. Now you’re reluctant to take risks. You can’t sell without submitting–never up, never in. You can’t get those big sales without submitting to markets that have very low odds. Avoiding risks will ensure stagnation of your progress.

The Right Behavior

So what should you pick for gauging your progress then? Total # of acceptances (rather than acceptance ratio). Total number of professional-paying sales. You can pick something that fits your values, but just consider what behavior it will encourage before you really stick to it.

To encourage me to submit I have found Dean Wesley Smith’s submission scoring system to be extremely valuable in motivating me to keep stories in submission. It’s pretty simple. For every short story you have submitted right now, you get 1 point. For every novel you have an excerpt out for, you get 3 points. For every complete novel manuscript submitted right now, you get 8 points. Submitting the same story to multiple venues simultaneously does not get you more points. When you get an acceptance or rejection, you lose the points associated with that submission.

The great thing about the system is that it encourages you to not mope when you get a rejection–if you find a new market to submit that story to, then you can keep the score up. And it encourages you to write more stories–your maximum score is the number of stories you’ve written. I intend to incorporate automatic scorekeeping using this system into The Submission Grinder at some point, because I believe in it.

So, writers out there, do you have any score or statistic that you follow to help motivate you in your submitting? Your writing?