Word Count: Murdering Your Darlings and King’s 10% Rule

Murder Your Darlings ~ Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch

“Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it – whole-heartedly — and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.” ~ Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (1914)

First drafts tend to be unusually long winded. We write at length because it is the surest way to express those thoughts and impressions most profound. We over-describe. We add chatter. We include thinking words. In the process of writing a first draft we write with a freedom of expression that is uncensored and unfettered.

A first draft is NOT a final draft.

Recently, a client emailed me with a request to edit the first chapter of their first draft. I don’t recommend hiring an editor for your first draft. The story has barely begun to be formed after your first pass and it requires at least one (preferably two) more drafts before it should be handled by others. In this case, the fact that it was a first draft wasn’t the issue. The fact that it was an 11,000 word count first chapter was.

There are no hard and fast rules about how long a story should be. Even the standard guides aren’t concrete. A story is as long as it takes to tell the story. But there are conventions that we tend to follow to increase our odds of being read. Very few readers will be comfortable facing such lengthy chapters.

When Writing Long Is Writing Long-Winded

The best way to handle the obesity of that first draft is to follow Stephen King’s Ten Percent Rule. In 1966, when King was still in high school he received a rejection slip that offered profound advice for the young writer.1

“Not bad but puffy,” the editor wrote. “You need to review for length.”

That wise editor gave King a winning formula:

“2nd Draft = 1st draft – 10%”
~ Stephen King (2002)

But you’ve got lots of darlings in your first draft. How do you really know where to cut the fat and prune the weeds? Which words are fat? Which words are weeds? Each story is different but there are some words we use in modern language that are unnecessary when writing fiction.

Words You Should Search And Destroy

When you examine a draft for superfluous words or seek ways to be more concise you can sharpen the language of the manuscript and reduce the word count. There are a selection of words you can almost always cut without changing the meaning of a sentence. The first five words you can cut are:

  1. Just: The only time this word is actually a word is when you use it to mean, “guided by truth, reason, justice, and fairness”.2 There are other meanings but the word is cruelly misused so when it appears in your manuscript odds are it can be obliterated.
  2. Really: I would “really” like to obliterate the word “really”. This is an adverb that is always underwhelming. It has no substance or measure. If you feel inclined toward hyperbole find a more distinct and effective word and no, “totally” doesn’t count.
  3. Quite: This word often feels like it is trying to justify its existence. It is timid and quiet which is perhaps why the word “quite” often gets misspelled as “quiet”. The words in your story should be empowered and confident.
  4. Perhaps: Sometimes your characters may use this to indicate uncertainty. The trouble is, “perhaps” reflects uncertainty to the reader too so use it with care and only in dialogue.
  5. That: This word needs careful consideration. It’s not always one that can be cut without thought like the four above. In that sentence, and this one, the word “that” is used to define the subject of the sentence. But sometimes, even when used in this way, it is not necessary.

A Sixth Word To Cut

  1. So: My personal pet-peeve word is “so”. I believe this word can be obliterated in every single instance. Prove me wrong! If you can think of a sentence that requires the word “so” to make sense, share it in the comments. Until you can, search and destroy “so” in all of your writing.

What other words do you feel should be obliterated from fiction and what other ways do you reduce the word count of your first draft by ten percent?

1. Poynter Online, The Ten Percent Solution First Draft by Chip Scanlan
2. Dictionary.com – just (adj.) 1. guided by truth, reason, justice, and fairness: We hope to be just in our understanding of such difficult situations.

Photo Credit: 09-18-07 © archives
Photo Credit: 11-27-08 © mark wragg

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Rebecca Laffar-Smith

Rebecca Laffar-Smith is a publisher, children's writer, and novelist. In 2010 she gave up a successful 12-year freelance career to focus on her three loves; family, community, and fiction. She self-published her debut novel The Flight of Torque in June 2014 and the first three titles in the P.I. Penguin series in from Aulexic in May 2015. At The Craft of Writing Fiction, Rebecca shares her journey of creation and learning with readers. She loves getting to know her fellow readers and writers and can be contacted through Twitter and Facebook, or Email.

23 thoughts on “Word Count: Murdering Your Darlings and King’s 10% Rule”

  1. Great article! I know I’m guilty of using many of those words myself, including the infamous ‘so’. I use it like ‘therefore’, and I know I need to cut it regularly.

    When I’m writing first drafts of a novel, I tend to write short rather than long. I don’t want to lose the forward momentum of a story, and keep description lean. I find myself going back and needing to add details that enhance the story, rather than cutting.

    Of course, I do end up cutting up quite a bit of my first draft, but to replace my intial lean prose with more descriptive and exciting paragraphs. I know I’m in the minority, but each writer has their own unique writing habits.



    1. I use the word “so” so often that it drives me bonkers. 😉

      Do you find writing short and then “padding” takes longer than writing long and then “culling”?

      With practice I’ve found it easier to write to pace which means that my first draft is usually about as long as my final draft. There are still words that need cutting, moving, pasting, inserting which is why the first and final draft wordcount might balance but the actual words do not.

      I think the biggest key to King’s “Ten Percent Rule” and Quiller-Couch’s “Murder your darlings” is to be aware of the words we use. Choosing the most effective word is vital. We need to develop the courage to obliterate any word that doesn’t serve to enhance the story.

  2. Uh-oh! So is a word I use WAY too much. LOL 😉

    I totally see what you’re saying, though. It really isn’t necessary.

    And that reminds me… I use though entirely too much as well!

    When I first started submitting my writing, I absolutely detested cutting and pruning my work. I didn’t want to let go of ONE word! But once our ideas are trimmed and polished, the piece is SO (hehe 😉 ) much more beautiful. 😀

    Great post, Rebecca! Bravo!

    *claps hands*

    1. “So” is so easy to use. 😉

      We do it in everyday language. And, conversationally, it’s completely acceptable in modern use but it’s an easy one to search and destroy in our fiction.

      I have a follow-up post coming soon about other “words” to watch out for in our writing and words ending in “ly” are going to get a big hit. *grins*

      Learning to “Murder your darlings” is a painful but worthwhile lesson. I’ve often thought of writing like mining gemstones. Our story comes out of the earth rough. It looks more rock than gem. You have to cut, grind, and polish the stone until it shines. Without editing our writing remains formless and ugly. THAT is why I think writing is more craft than art. Art is the raw stone, we must craft it to bring out the gem beneath. (Speaking of which, I think this just inspired me to write a new post.)

      Thanks, Michele!

  3. Great advice! It may be difficult for some writers to trim the fat. However, tight and concise writing is best.

    You provided a great list of words to cut. Watch out for: sometimes, surely, truly, because, and seriously. Read and reread your sentences. You may consider editing as you write. But, it could slow down the writing process.

    1. Thanks for adding to the list, Rebecca.

      I think, with practice, we learn to instinctively edit as we write. It doesn’t eliminate the need to edit AFTER we write but it does reduce the amount of editing required. Being aware of the words that are our personal stumbling blocks, and being brutal in eliminating them when we edit, helps us learn to cut them out before we even put them on the page.

  4. Good article with well-thought out and expressed tips. I have to disagree to a point about “so”. This is how people talk. If you’re writing fiction and you go to a lot o trouble to avoid it, dialog can sound stilted. “So what else is new?” Heh Heh

  5. There is neither good nor bad, but thinking makes it SO
    SO wise SO young they never do live long
    Asses are made to bear and SO are you

  6. You give good advice to new authors here. Learning to revise my work has been one of the more difficult lessons that I’ve needed to learn. I still tend to submit my work without enough revision, but I am getting better at that.

    1. It can be difficult to develop the habit of editing and proofreading writing before submitting but there are so many benefits to making time to do so. The good news is, the more you write, the better you get at getting it right the first time, so the less time it takes to edit and proofread. When writers first start writing it is a good idea to do several drafts, over time that comes down to about three drafts, and eventually you’ll be writing a pretty good first draft that just needs some polishing before it’s ready. Just remember give yourself a little distance from your writing by letting it sit a few days before going over it with fresh eyes. It can be easy to read what you think you wrote rather than what is actually on the page if there is not enough distance between the act of writing and the act of editing. Good luck with your revision, Wendy, and thanks for your comment. 🙂

  7. Thank you that was excellent.

    Remember also, that there are freelance editors out there like me who are reasonably priced and friendly, who can help you out as well.

  8. Great article! But I feel like these types of articles are worthless to post. Yes, there are some words that should be rid of people’s vocabulary (especially writers) but I’ve read many books by famous authors where they used “really” “quite” and “so”, plus many others. Using them over and over in a story or article is nonsense but completely ridding words like these from your writing and vocabulary? That’s nonsense too.

    Let people write how they wanna write. As long as the story or article is good and gets their point across without sounding like a middle schooler wrote it, it’s a great piece to me.

  9. It is a personal self rule to cut out as many filler, glue and -ly words as I can. However, with Close Third Point of Vew Narration -ly words are necessary for the characters thoughts, dialogue, and everything else. Tge second draft I hunted them all down cutting them all out.

    My reades on the book/writing site I’m on HATED it as it had become stiff and flat, “it didn’t feel right.” another said.

    Please add a comment that -ly words occasionally add a little spice—if they aren’t a way for the writer to be lazy and use them in place if showing.

    Anyway, thanks. I love lists like these. If I can cut 10-20 words in most chapters then, great!

    Like most writing advice a writer has to be careful that it applies to their storry.

    The crap advice going around to and transition words … what newbies don’t understand is that searching Google for: transition words and phrases brings up lists for nonfiction!

    The ones for fiction are very different.

    Newbies cram every sentance with as many stuffy trans (train wreck) words as they can. I’ve seen many times.

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