Stephen King’s 10% Rule And The Secret Power Of The Delete Key

Computer, Keys, Pc, Delete, Me, Keyboard

Because: what you leave out is as important as what you put in.

I’m not saying the delete key is magic, but sometimes it can feel that way.
  • Skillful use of the delete button will help you show instead of tell.
  • Will add to the page-turning quality of your book.
  • Will help create books readers stay up late to finish.
The delete button is the quickest, easiest way to transform your draft.

Less Is More and Feeling The Joy.

Mies van der Rohe’s famous dictum, Less Is More, applied to design and architecture.
Marie Kondo created a worldwide bestseller with advice on decluttering.
According to some of the world’s best writers, these two simple but powerful principles—less is more and decluttering—also apply to writing. Used judiciously, the modest, unassuming, reliable delete button is the fastest, easiest way to significantly improve your book—and maybe even change your life the way it changed Stephen King’s.
Other writers—like Elmore Leonard, Janet Evanovich, and John Grisham—agree and explain what you leave out is as important as what you put in.

Stephen King’s 10% Rule.

From Stephen King’s On Writing:
“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.”

Elmore Leonard Leaves Out The Parts Readers Skip.

“Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.”
“Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.”
“Leave out the parts readers tend to skip.”
To quote Elmore Leonard: “Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.”

James Patterson is a Master of the Minimal.

Patterson’s books, known for their short chapters and unputdownable quality, are driven by dialogue and action. Characters, setting, and emotion are conveyed in brief bursts.
Patterson advises: “If you want to keep up the pace, make sure you only give readers the barest details that add a bit of color, texture, and emotion.”

Janet Evanovich Compares Writing to Making Gravy.

In her book on craft, “How I Write,” Janet Evanovich says: “I work very hard at the mechanics of writing so the reader doesn’t have to work hard at all…I keep my books relatively short and I strongly believe in reduction writing. It’s like reduction in cooking When you make gravy, you take a big pot of ingredients—meat, spices—and you boil it down to a little pot of stuff, which is the essence.
“If you use that principle in writing you’re getting two terrific sentences rather than four long, tedious paragraphs. While my writing may give the impression of being simple and effortless, it actually takes me hours to get it to appear that way.”

John Grisham’s Do’s And Don’ts For Popular Fiction.

John Grisham is another popular writer who takes the less is more approach.
“Read each sentence at least three times in search of words to cut.”
“Most writers use too many words, and why not? We have unlimited space and few constraints.”

George Orwell Concurs.

“If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.”

The Elements of Style by Strunk & White does, too.

“Omit needless words.”

Screenwriter William Goldman Takes a Scene-by-Scene Approach.

Obviously, novels are different than screenplays, but William Goldman’s observation that many scenes start too early and end too late is also relevant to novels.
“You always attack a movie scene as late as you possibly can. You always come into the scene at the last possible moment. Get on. The camera is relentless. Makes you keep running.”

English Author Esther Freud says “Editing is Everything.”

Named as one of the 20 ‘Best of Young British Novelists’ by Grantamagazine, Esther Freud advises writers to “cut until you can cut no more. What is left often springs into life.”

Award-Winning, Bestselling Welsh novelist, Sarah Waters also Wields the Delete Key.

“Cut like crazy. Less is more. I’ve often read manuscripts – including my own – where I’ve got to the beginning of, say, chapter two and thought: ‘This is where the novel should actually start.’
“A huge amount of information about character and back story can be conveyed through small detail. The emotional attachment you feel to a scene or a chapter will fade as you move on to other stories. Be business-like about it.”

How (And Where) to Start.

As in any criminal investigation, begin by rounding up the usual suspects.
Hunt down the cooties of language—adverbs, wandering sentences, meandering paragraphs, long descriptions, banal language, flat sentences—irritating, unneeded and unwanted.
Before you start, duplicate the document you’re working on in case you get too carried away or change your mind later. If you’re on Scrivener, take a snapshot [Command-5] before you start pruning.
A no-brainer but crucially important. (Ask me how I know.)

F-words, Crutch Words and Other Perps.

Kathy Steinemann takes on filter words, lists offenders, kicks butt and offers rescues.
Diana Urban nails 43 words to cut. Period.
Jen Doll in The Atlantic goes mano a mano with an epidemic of crutch words.
Editor Hannah Baumann lists 40 words to avoid.
Why say “very beautiful”? “Beautiful” is enough, said James Joyce, hardly a miser when it came to words.
Here are 45 alternatives to “very.”
Editor Dave King offers a striking example of how deletions immediately strengthen a scene.

Blah, blah, blah—and more blah, blah, blah.

  • Are you entertaining your reader?
  • Informing your reader?
  • Or are you dishing up a limp and lame word salad before you get down to the business of plot and chartacter?
  • Are you boring your reader?
  • Yourself?
  • Have you asked yourself: Is this paragraph/scene/chapter really necessary?
  • Are you drowning your story (and your reader) in lengthy descriptions or irrelevant digressions when s/he just wants to know who’s doing what to whom and what happens next?
  • Is your book suffering from a dreaded case of info dump?
  • If you’re not sure, look for dense thickets of prose and dumb dialogue.
  • Can four sentences be condensed into two strong, vivid sentences? Are you making a mess? Or are you making gravy the way Janet Evanovich does?
  • Should one long paragraph be two shorter paragraphs?
  • And what about a one or two word paragraph to change the rhythm and get your reader’s attention?
Like this.

Navel gazing.

The character’s deep, philosophical thoughts about Life or The Search For Meaning and/or Identity? Only if you’re Plato or Nietzsche.
Often deleting the “why” a character does or says something will immediately strengthen your scene. The reader will fill in what you’ve purposely left out. Dialogue, setting, and body language will provide the necessary clues.
As Elmore Leonard said, “the reader either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care.”

Warm ups.

Just as athletes leave the warm up on the practice field and shift into another gear when the game start, writers should consider William Goldman’s advice about when to enter and exit a scene.
  • Is your scene starting too late?
  • Have you been “setting the scene?”
  • Describing the weather?
  • Dithering on about the character’s identity crisis or inner psychological state?
  • Explaining the crisis instead of showing it?
  • Have you spent a few paragraphs “warming up” before the real action begins?
If so, you’ve found more to cut or even delete.

Reuse and recycle.

A good cook saves leftovers and knows how to repurpose them into appetizing meals. The left-over spinach that’s delicious added to a lentil soup? The odds and ends  of meat and vegetables that appear again in a hearty shepherd’s pie?
Like a good cook, think of your deletions as leftovers that can be used another day.
Might a scene that ended up on the cutting room floor make a short story?
Can your odds and ends be used in a blog or newsletter to give your readers a peek behind the scenes?
Could a character that didn’t quite work be perfect in another book?
When the going gets tough, the tough delete.
Or at least they think about it, and so should you.
[This post first appeared on Anne R. Allen's blog. I'm repeating it here in case you missed it. I hope you find it helpful.]