Craft Lesson: The Ten Percent Solution

Craft Lessons
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In “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft,” Stephen King describes a rejection slip he received in 1966 when he was still in high school.

“Not bad but puffy,” the editor wrote. “You need to revise for length.”

The editor provided this formula:

“2nd Draft = 1st draft – 10 %”

It may sound mechanical, but it’s a useful way to trim the fat off your story.

“I wish I could remember who wrote that note…” King writes. “Whoever it was did me a hell of a favor. I copied the formula out on a piece of shirt-cardboard and taped it to the wall beside my typewriter. Good things started to happen for me shortly after. There was no sudden golden flood of magazine sales, but the number of personal notes on the rejection slips went up fast. What the Formula taught me is that every story and novel is collapsible to some degree. If you can’t get out ten per cent of it while retaining the basic story and flavor, you’re not trying very hard. The effect of judicious cutting is immediate and often amazing.”

The Oregonian’s multi-award winning narrative writer Tom Hallman is a charter member of what I think of as the Ten Percent Solution Society.

“I really believe in being spare,” Hallman says.

“On every story I’ve ever done, I’ve hard-edited and cut no less than 10 or 15 percent of the story,” he says. “So if it’s a 100-inch story, I always cut out 10 or 15 inches. And that’s before I give it to the editor.”

As Stephen Koch advises in “The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction, “If your story is 10 pages long, make it nine pages long. 20 Pages? Make it 18. If your draft is 300 pages long,  knock it down to 270. Do you have a bunch of pages— any bunch of pages— that needs work? They have not been worked on until they have been washed and pre-shrunk in the 10-Percent Solution.”

Likely candidates:

Passive verb constructions. “The mayor is planning” becomes “The mayor plans,” adding energy, saving a word.
 
Modifiers. Search for “ly” to identify weak adverbs. Replace them with verbs that communicate with power and economy. “She knocked lightly” becomes “She tapped.”

Quotes. Most speech is bloated. Trim the fat, leaving the verbatim message, or paraphrase. You’re the writer: Unless your sources can say it better than you, silence them and put it in your own carefully crafted words.

Boredom. Heed Elmore Leonard’s dictum: Cut out the boring parts. Replace bloated description with dialogue. Do you really need that long anecdotal lead or would the nut graf that follows do the job just as well? If your eyes glaze over as you read your draft, be ruthless. Slice and dice.

Showing Off. “Cut phoniness,” Koch says. “There are going to be certain passages that you put in simply in the hope of impressing people… We all have our way of showing off, and they rarely serve us well. When you have identified your own grandiosity, do not be kind.” Georges Simenon, the prolific French mystery writer, made it his mission to cut away “his efforts to impress..” His main job when he rewrote was to… cut every word which is there just to make an effect. Every sentence which is there just for the sentences…Cut it.”

Follow Stephen King’s lead and join the Ten Per Cent Solution Society by keeping the formula close at hand as you revise.


Lose a few words but gain many more readers.

Or better yet. Whittle away as close as you can to the formula or beyond for maximum impact.


Lose words.

Gain readers.

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