Don’t you just love it when you come across a piece of writing advice that’s really specific and has some practical application to exactly what you’re working on? This just happened to me. I was wandering through Stephen King’s handbook called On Writing. While I’m not a huge fan of his fiction, I’ve found this book very valuable from time to time, mainly because it takes a very craftsmanlike approach to writing. It lays out some pretty straightforward guidelines for everything from researching to revising.
One really useful tip is the “Rewrite Formula” that Stephen offers, which he learned way back in high school when he was an aspiring writer. Here’s what he says about it: “In the spring of my senior year at Lisbon High — 1966, this would’ve 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.”
Stephen says he copied this 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 after.” While he notes that this this bit of advice wasn’t the only reason things started moving for him, it definitely helped. Before he latched onto this formula, if he wrote a story that was 4,000 words in his first draft, it was likely to be 5,000 words in the second. He’s a “putter-inner” not a “taker-outer,” as he describes himself. In other words, he generally added 20% to a story in revision rather than trimming out 10%.
Once he had this formula in hand, he began trimming instead of fattening up his stories. Cutting 10% is relatively painless he contends, and “the effect of judicious cuttings is immediate and often amazing — literary Viagra.” Mmmm sounds like something to try.