The Rule of 10 Percent

Tips for Adding Clarity to Your Writing

As an editor, I live and die by the unspoken Rule of 10 Percent. I first learned of it from Stephen King. In his book, “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft”, King states that when he finished writing and moved into editing mode, he cuts 10 percent right off the top. The reason? Fluff.

As writers, we tend to write with the goal of conveying all of the information we have gathered about the story we have written. It’s an unconscious act that we likely don’t notice, but a good editor does. During the writing process, our work becomes overwritten from adding unnecessary detail or using more words where fewer will do. The end result is a watered-down story that lacks the punch and effect that we had in mind. At first, cutting our words can be like slitting our wrists. Yes, it does hurt initially, but as we do it, an interesting side effect takes place: our writing gets stronger and our voice comes out. I’ve edited as many as 300 words down from a 1,200 word story — that’s 25 percent, if you’re counting. You can do it.

So which 10 percent should be cut. Try these:

Reconsider Your Lead.

Another rule I swear by is the Third Paragraph Rule. This rule states that the best opening for any story is typically the third paragraph. Try it. You’ll be surprised. The theory is based on writers not getting into voice until after framing the first two paragraphs.Take a look at some of your work to see if this holds true.

Simplify or Condense Words.

Try using smaller words or seeing if you can use one word where you have two or more words. Chances are that you can scale down your copy quite a bit when you can find fewer words to represent many. One jam writers get into is trying to sound too intelligent. What good is it to pen large words that will potentially stifle your reader. Consider your reader and write to their educational level. Chances are, you’ll do fine with an 8th grade vocabulary.

Keep an Eye on Voice.

Passive construction is an easy trap to fall prey. Saying which instead of that is the most common passive voice pitfall. Here is an example of passive and active voice.

  • The car was washed by the detailer. (passive)
  • The detailer washed the car. (active)

These are a few simple tricks towards writing clearly. I use these in my daily writing and they serve me well. I pass them on to writers I manage, as well. Give them a try and let me know how it goes.