Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The 10% Solution

with 6 comments

The recent release of Stephen King’s Full Dark, No Stars, the latest book by the most enduring and instructive popular novelist in America, reminds me of one of my favorite rules for writing, which is beautifully articulated by King in his classic book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. On Writing, which is one of the four or five books on writing that every novelist should read, is worth a look for any number of reasons, but King shares one story, in particular, that justifies the purchase all by itself:

In the spring of my senior year at Lisbon High—1966, this would have been—I got a scribbled comment that changed the way I rewrote my fiction once and forever. Jotted below the machine-generated signature of the editor was this mot: “Not bad, but PUFFY. You need to revise for length. Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%. Good luck.”

I wish I could remember who wrote that note—Algis Budrys, perhaps. 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 thereafter.

For its combination of simplicity and immediate usefulness to every writer, professional or otherwise, King’s little formula might be the single most powerful writing tool I know. And it really works. Every story I’ve ever sold or published has been cut by at least 20%, and my novel was trimmed by a staggering 45% (from more than 180,000 words down to 100,000). And there isn’t a single cut sentence that I regret—or even, at this point, remember.

Some writers might be intimidated by the idea of cutting a tenth or more from a draft they’ve grown to love, but it’s easier than it looks. My favorite financial writer, the very funny Andrew Tobias, in his book The Only Investment Guide You’ll Ever Need, has a similar rule for people reluctant to save 10% of their income, which, needless to say, is also a good idea:

There is someone in the world making 10% less than you who is not ragged and homeless. Live like him.

My own version of that rule would look something like this:

There is a version of your novel that honors and fulfills your artistic intentions with 10% fewer words than the current draft. Write that novel.

So, in one simple formula, I’ve given you a rule that will help ensure your success as a writer and your future financial stability. Isn’t this blog great?

Written by nevalalee

December 4, 2010 at 2:25 pm

6 Responses

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  1. I love this post. I have King’s writing book also. I have read it and gone back to it on again and again. I’m not sure that I remember reading that so it’s more likely that I’ll remember the 10% advice this time around. I recently finished editing my first novel. There was a point where I hated to really cut anything. I was really focused on not having a word count that was too short. By the time I hit the third round of edits, I was ok with cutting what needed to be cut. And yes, it made for a better book, something that I could be that much more pround of.

    I had never seen a picture of his house. Hmmm.


    December 4, 2010 at 6:35 pm

  2. Thanks so much! It’s my experience that once you’ve been through the revision process a few times, it becomes oddly addictive. (It’s certainly easier than writing a first draft…)

    I should probably also point out that cutting 45% of a novel, as I did, implies that the first draft was simply too long in the first place. For my second novel, I’m hoping to get that number closer to 20%.


    December 4, 2010 at 7:08 pm

  3. Sound advice from King. In writing a short story recently the word count increased by approx. 30% in the second draft, then decreased by approx. 20% for the final draft.

    Mufidah Kassalias

    January 31, 2013 at 5:32 am

  4. I’m currently trying to trim ten percent from a draft of a novel that’s already been cut in half. Sometimes the hardest thing about this blog is taking my own advice…


    January 31, 2013 at 8:46 am

  5. […] simpleminded: write every day, revise only after the entire manuscript is finished, cut at least ten percent from the final draft. Really, though, they’re all just a means of keeping you at your desk […]

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    September 12, 2014 at 9:45 pm

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