Editing and the Rule of 10%

By Rhen Wilson

We often consider “pruning” as an applicable metaphor for editing. In my last post on revising, I used the analogy as well. The imagery makes sense. But is it the most applicable?

Pruning requires a careful snip to remove a plant’s excess, to cut away at nutrient-stealing shoots or branches. Pruning helps plants grow larger and bear more fruit. In Arkansas I kept a tomato plant, and every week, I’d cut away the non-fruit bearing bits for which my deliciously plump tomatoes thanked me.

Chopping vs. Pruning

But when you’re wrapping up revisions (you’ve already solidified your structure, rewritten sentences that weren’t working, and had a number of colleagues provide advice and feedback), your goal isn’t to grow your word count.

On the contrary, the more concise the writing, the sharper and stronger the prose will read. Reduce your work to its bare essentials. Cut the superfluous. Approach your writing with an ax instead of shears and chop down limbs hanging precariously over roofs or electric lines.

The Rule of 10%

But how much cutting is required? The boring answer is it depends, but we hear that answer all the time. At work, I tell my team to cut 10% from their final product, and I suggest the same to you, dear reader. For the longest time, I thought I made up this number. The percentage seemed reasonable. Ten percent isn’t enough to do real harm to the story or subject and is just enough to tighten the prose into an enjoyable read.

But as I prepped for this blog post, I realized Stephen King proposed this 10% cut in his book On Writing, which I read more than 10 years ago. The advice clearly stuck, if not in an obvious, attributable way. Nevertheless, I thought I’d explain what I mean when I say 10%. As an example, let’s take the first sentence from my last blog post.

First Draft

Revising and editing content is one of the more challenging aspects of writing. (13 words)

In this first draft, I threw down my thoughts onto paper (a la “word vomit”), not worrying yet about cadence and structure. Just getting it out.

Second Draft

Revising and editing content both enthralls and dismays any writer. (10)

I hate weak verbs, especially in introductory sentences. I rewrote the sentence and pushed “one of the more challenging…” into the next sentence, where it seemed to work better. With the second draft complete, I now apply the 10% rule.

Final Draft

Editing both enthralls and dismays any writer. (7)

According to the rule, I only needed to cut one word (10 words * 0.1 [10%] = 1 word), but “revising and editing” are synonyms and therefore redundant. And “content” was more than superfluous, so I nixed it too. Dropping us down to seven words from ten in the second draft, you can see how this logic can tighten up any writing.

Sometimes you’ll need a few passes through the draft before you can chop a solid 10%. I believe I went through that post twice before I removed 10%, and this post required three passes. But if you go through each sentence, line by line, you’ll find the process methodical and helpful, and you’re writing will be that much better.

 

Do you use the 10% rule or a close cousin? How does it affect your writing? Leave me a comment below.