The 10% rule – or how Stephen King made me a better writer
When I was a kid, I was a HUGE Stephen King fan.
I read The Shining in grade four. Carrie and Salem’s Lot and The Stand in grade five. Cujo in grade six. (Still can’t bear to think of the ending to that one.) Different Seasons in grade seven. Christine in grade eight. And so on…
As I grew older and developed an appreciation for books that strove to do something more than scare the pants off people, I left Mr. King’s works behind. But I’ve always had great appreciation for his ability to create compelling characters and spin a yarn that could captivate and terrify me and leave me wanting more.
So when a friend recommended his book On Writing, I decided to check it out.
Turns out Mr. King’s book on the writing process is just as captivating as his novels. He offers fabulous advice and a compelling account of his own experience of becoming a writer and honing his art.
One of the best takeaways I got from his book was “the 10 percent rule.”
It goes like this:
Whenever you finish a piece of writing, check its word count then go back through it and ruthlessly remove at least 10% of the words.
So if it’s a 750-word article, delete 75 words. If it’s a 500-word article, take out 50 words, etc.
3 Tips on How to Shrink Your Word Count
As you implement the 10% rule, you’ll become aware of words in your writing that don’t add essential meaning to what you’re trying to say.
Here are 3 specific examples to look for:
1. Unnecessary details or digressions
As you review every phrase and sentence in your writing, ask yourself: “Is this really necessary? If I take it out, does the core meaning of the article remain intact?”
If your answer to that second question is yes, delete that phrase or sentence! By weeding out the non-essential details, you make your writing stronger and clearer – and you do your readers the favour of not making them read more words than necessary. (Which they’ll appreciate, believe me!)
Look for details, phrases, and sentences that are similar to something you’ve written elsewhere in the piece. There’s no need to repeat yourself – when you communicate the idea strongly enough the first time, once is all you need.
3. Modifier + Weak Verb or Noun pairings
Look for modifying words – e.g., adverbs and adjectives – that you’ve added to make a noun or verb seem stronger.
- really pleased
- super excited
- deeply believe
- casually walking
- looking intensely
- very bright
- incredibly special
- tall building
- large pile
- difficult problem
- seriously crazy
You can almost always shrink such two-word pairings into one word simply by using a stronger noun or verb.
- really pleased –> delighted
- super excited –> “excited” is already a strong word. Using it alone is enough – or if you really want to hammer it home, say “thrilled”
- deeply believe –> know or understand
- casually walking –> sauntering or meandering
- looking intensely –> glaring, peering or gazing
- very bright –> blinding
- incredibly special –> rare, amazing, phenomenal, fabulous
- really tall building –> skyscraper
- large pile –> mound or mountain
- difficult problem –> challenge or dilemma
- seriously crazy–> insane
See how the words on the right are stronger and add more clarity and nuance? That’s how you weed out the unnecessary words while adding more power and meaning to your writing.
The 10% rule in action
To show you what this kind of editing looks like, here’s an excerpt from the unedited first draft of the article you’ve just been reading. The words I deleted are bracketed in red font and the words I’ve used to replace them are blue. I’ve added occasional editorial commentary in green – because who doesn’t love as much colour in their writing as possible? 😉
Here’s what the unedited first draft looked like, with edits & comments added:
When I was a teenager, I was a [seriously huge] HUGE Stephen King fan.
[I’m talking HUGE.] [Added emphasis unnecessary]
I read The Shining [when I was] in grade four. Carrie and Salem’s Lot and The Stand [when I was] in grade five. Cujo [when I was] in grade six. (Still can’t bear to think of the ending to that one.) Different Seasons in grade seven. Christine [when I was] in grade eight. And [then reread them a dozen times over until the next book came out and] [deleted because the fact that I obsessively reread these books doesn’t really add valuable meaning to the article. I think readers can probably understand that I was a big fan without this detail] so on.
[And so on, and so forth.] [Added emphasis unnecessary]
As I grew older [and got a bachelor’s degree in journalism and an MA in English Lit, I] [you’re tooting your own horn here, Erin – doesn’t really add essential meaning to the topic] and developed an appreciation for books that strove to do something other than scare the pants off [their readers] people, I [stopped reading Mr. King’s books and gradually] left [them] Mr. King’s books behind. But I’ve always had [a] great [deal of ] appreciation for his ability to create compelling characters and spin a yarn that could captivate and terrify me and leave me wanting more.
So when a friend [suggested that I read] recommended his book On Writing, I decided to [hunt it down in the local library and] check it out.
[As it] Turns out [,] Mr. King’s books on the writing process are just as captivating as his novels. He offers [really useful] fabulous advice and a compelling account of his own experience of becoming a writer and honing his art [– copious amounts of drugs and all.] [Deleted because while I was fascinated by his story of rampant drug use and his battle to overcome it, it doesn’t add anything to my article.]
The unedited copy was 234 words and I cut it down to 163 by doing a couple of sweeps through it. That’s a drop of 32%!
And I think you’ll agree, the shorter version is cleaner and easier to read as a result.
Try it in your own writing – and avoid the TL;DR curse
The next time you write a blog post or article, try the 10% rule out for yourself. I guarantee you’ll find it easy to cut at least 10% of the words out of your article with every edit you do. And the result will be a stronger, clearer piece of writing that more people will read through to the end – and be more likely to remember as a result.