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

Adapt Your Voice to Expand Your Writing Opportunities

Adapt your Writer's VoiceMany beginning writers hear the term “voice,” as in, “finding your writer’s voice” but aren’t sure what it means. “Voice” is the words we choose, as well as our sentence structure, the cadence of how the words fit together.

When people speak, we may have an accent or speak in a particular dialect of our native language. We also have speech patterns, slang phrases we use, and favorite expressions. These are often influenced by the area we live, our age/generation, our socioeconomic status, and possibly even what we do for a living. (Language directly influenced by our industry is sometimes called “jargon.”)

In writing, all of these things together form a “writer’s voice.” Many of us write the way we talk. But some writers are adept at adopting different voices. If you can write in a variety of voices, you can expand your writing opportunities to include:

  • Writing in a variety of fields and industries
  • Writing for the web, print, television or radio
  • Ghostwriting
  • Making $1/word or more writing for glossy national publications or trade journal

How to Recognize Other Voices

The first step to learning how to write in different voices, is learning how to recognize different voices — and what creates them — when you read. For instance, corporate writing adopts a more formal style. Blogs can be casual, fun or newsy, depending on the audience. Sales and marketing copy has a conversational style designed to draw in — and convince — readers.

To begin to pick up the cadence of different writing voices, read widely. Read everything. (Where have you heard that writing advice before? Everywhere, I’m guessing!) After you read something in a unique, distinctive voice, sit down and write something using that voice.

“Finding Someone Else’s Voice”

Writing in a different voice often requires more extensive rewriting. The first words that come out of our minds and onto our computer screen are usually our “natural” writing voice. In many cases, this is also the way we speak. (If you ever hear me give a webinar, you’ll recognize that I write these blog posts in my “teaching voice,” and I speak pretty much the same way when I’m teaching someone about writing.)

To write in a different voice, consider all the different ways you can say the same thing. Use words not in your normal lexicon. Vary your techniques and your sentence structure.

If you are ghostwriting, the best thing to do is to read everything you can that person has written. The same goes for submitting queries or articles to major magazines. You want to make that “voice” part of your mind, so you can hear it in your own thought patterns. You should begin thinking like your client, or like the writers of the magazine you want to write for. When you start to think like your client or your magazine’s market, you’ll start to write in a way they can relate to, naturally.

Take the Writing Voice Challenge

Here’s an exercise for you. Take a recent article or blog post you have written and rewrite it:

  • In the voice of your favorite author
  • As sales copy
  • As a corporate communication
  • As an email to a friend

After you do this a few times, you’ll be close to an expert at adopting other voices, and then you don’t have to worry if you land an assignment that forces you to write in a voice different from your own writer’s voice. You can do it!

Feel free to share your examples below in the comments or tell us other ways you experiment with “voice” when you’re writing.

Reflections of a Writer’s Garden: Inspiration, the Muse’s Reward.

Reflections of a Writer's Garden: Inspiration, the Muse's Reward.

“Take thy plastic spade,

It is thy pencil;

Take thy seeds, thy plants,

They are thy colors.”

~William Mason, The English Garden

Spring is here and where I live, that means time spent in the garden. My family lives as eco-friendly as possible and are striving for self-sustainability – a lot of hard work in all areas, as you can imagine. This includes raising our own food: tilling, planting, weeding, tilling some more, and carrying countless buckets of water from the Amish-built windmill.

What does this have to do with writing? Everything, in my opinion.

Yesterday evening, as I got cozy on the weathered bench that’s nestled snuggly in the corner of our 100 x 100 garden area, I began to visualize zucchini, strawberries, watermelon, snap peas, peppers, onions, and all the other delicious sustenance the rich soil will produce.

As I daydreamed about smoothie and juice concoctions, salads and raw pasta, it came to me – gardening is very similar to writing!


The inspiration is clear:

Seeds = Words

Each word we put on paper is like a seed sewn in our garden – our writer’s garden. Much like planting seeds in a vegetable or flower garden, our words grow, change, and become a part of something far bigger than our original thought.

Seeds (like words!) may never grow; they might be bad seeds. In that case, we simply start fresh!

Tending Our Garden

As the words are planted, they come together one-by-one, row after row. It takes time to get the plants just so-so. If you’re a perfectionist, you may even put a stake at each end and run string to guarantee a straight shot all the way.

A gardener nurtures their plants, waters them, even fertilizes and makes special bug-repelling tonics and potions to ensure they’re healthy and thrive.

As writers we do the same, making sure sentences aren’t too long, words are spelled correctly, and our grammar is top-notch.

Editing = Weeding

Sometimes there are too many words – or not enough. And much like we may dig up a plant that’s too close to another and replant it elsewhere – or fill in a scant area – we copy, cut and paste our words, sentences, or paragraphs to make our work flow better.

And then we proofread, weeding our writer’s garden, plucking away each word that doesn’t belong.

Sun + Rain = Polished Perfection

Those last few, special touches we put on our article, story, or book, is like a garden being kissed by the sun or rain – they make all our efforts flourish and shine, blossom and burst forth breathtaking beauty. Once withering plants who have cried out for vitamins and nutrients absorb sunshine and rain, they take on a whole new look. They shoot up and out, running wild and free – as they should.

It’s the last moment tidbits of inspiration our muse whispers ever so softly and sprinkles into our thoughts, that finishes everything beautifully and makes it truly flourish.

Harvesting = Plentiful Rewards

There’s no greater joy than taking a step back and smiling when all the time, effort, and labor – plus sweat, tears, and frustrating moments -pay off in the end.

Whether it’s your writing or a produce- or flower-filled garden, when your harvest is ready; it’s a great feeling, a learning experience you can cherish always.

Don’t forget to stop and smell the roses – you may even want to plant your own!

What is your Writer’s garden filled with? Does it need weeding? Have you planted enough seeds? Do you tend your garden lovingly – or has it withered from lack of attention? What does your harvest look like? Do tell!

Photo Credit: Simon Howden

Finding New Inspiration: First Words and Beyond

Words, words, and more words…. They float around in our heads – until our brains feel like mush. At least, mind does (sometimes).

freelance, creative, muse, writing, inspiration, first words, Wordle

But there are also times that our brains look like a vast, white space. And no matter how hard we try to tap into our inner muse; no matter how many different techniques we use, we can’t seem to find those perfect first words. Sometimes, it seems, the only words that come to mind are: contract, deadline, SEO, or even bills.

I mentioned my lack of words on a social media media site a while back and got the following response:

“Start out writing your name, address and a description of the room in which you’re writing. I wrote a newspaper column for nearly 20 years. I’m very practiced in breaking up log-jams in the writerly brain. Just remember, there’s a torrent just behind that dam!” – K. C. Compton (Editor, at Ogden Publications)

Excellent advice, K.C.! (Of course, I guess that’s why she is one of the Editor’s-In-Chief for Ogden Publications, huh?)

It’s during the times that we’re grasping desperately for words – any word – that we can apply the following tips, as well as K.C.’s advice.

7 Surefire Ways to Find New Words

  1. Grab a notebook and start writing a list. This list can be about anything: your dreams,  pros and cons of something you’ve been considering, maintenance or other projects for your house – even a grocery list.
  2. Take a break and play Scrabble. What better way to enjoy some time – and company – than being hands-on with letters and words?!
  3. Write a thank you note or friendly letter to someone. Think warm thoughts and share your heart with the recipient.
  4. Email or IM a friend. If that friend is a writer, that’s even better. They can help lift your spirits and jog your memory about past times you’ve had abundant writing inspiration.
  5. Read your favorite blog or a few pages from a book that’s nearby. Words from one of your favorite authors/bloggers will help get your creative juices flowing.
  6. Get up from your computer and go in to another room or outside. It’s amazing how much difference a view makes. By simply stepping in to the next room or popping outside for a few minutes, you can refuel your mind. Look at old photos or sit on your porch or deck for a spell – absorb your surroundings and soak up the inspiration life brings!
  7. Pamper yourself. Something like a cup of hot tea and your favorite magazine, a 20-minute soak in a warm bath sprinkled with lavender essential oil or bath salts, or a short nap can provide just the amount of rejuvenation your body needs to crank up your muse once again.

What do you do to find new words when your writing well has run dry? Do you stand beneath the idea waterfall? Or use any of the tips I shared above? Do you have a fabulous technique to share with us? Chime in!

Did you enjoy this article? Feel free to visit the other articles Michele has written for Writer’s Round-About–or contact her to write for you.

Photo Credit: Wordle, created by Michele Tune

Condense Text and Meet Word Count Limits

With computerization and online forms, submissions of many kinds are often required to meet strict word count limits. Going over is a common problem. Condensing text to comply with requirements but without eliminating essential content is a useful skill.

  1. Make sure you’ve stuck to the topic. Seems obvious, but re-reading may alert you to material that is not strictly necessary. Removing it will only tighten your work.
  2. Writing is a spontaneous process and we’re all prone to repetition. It can be a useful device to add emphasis but with a word limit, sometimes it’s got to go. Reread for repetitions – not necessarily repeating word for word but saying essentially the same thing in different ways. If found, cut all but the most important mention.
  3. Check your phrasing. You can shorten text without changing anything except the way you put sentences together and deploy language. For example, avoid the passive voice. There are two uses of passive voice in the sentence ‘It was claimed by Jack that the ball had been chewed by the dog’. Rewriting in the active voice – as ‘Jack claimed that the dog had chewed the ball’ – condenses the text by a massive one-third!
  4. Avoid wordy expressions. Often they are clichés anyway. Use ‘now’ or ‘currently’ instead of ‘at this point in time’.
  5. Consider using adjectives as shorthand. Instead of saying ‘People in European countries prefer coffee’ say ‘Europeans prefer coffee’.
  6. Eliminate adjectives that are pleasing but are not essential. It may be necessary to refer to ‘very heavy workloads’ in some contexts, but you might get away with ‘heavy workloads’ or even just ‘workloads’, because the word already implies some burden.
  7. Split two part sentences joined by ‘and’ into two, use commas or rephrase. ‘We travelled by train to Paris and then caught a plane to Rome’ is thirteen words. ‘We travelled by car to Paris, then caught a plane to Rome’ is twelve). Even better, ‘We drove to Paris, then flew to Rome’ condenses the text by a quarter!
  8. Sometimes sentences contain additional words that can be eliminated without transgressing grammatical rules. For example: ‘Growers of these plants bred them and crossed them to create new cultivars. Cut out the first ‘them’. The sentence is still intelligible. It may seem a small change but throughout a document it adds up. You’ll be amazed at how many opportunities for shortening text this strategy offers.
  9. Cheat (kind-of). Many word counters recognize hyphenated words as one word not two (world-wide, rather than world wide, for example), so go for the hyphen.

Know your writing style. If you know you tend to slip into the passive voice, you’ll know what to look for next time you need to condense text by chopping two hundred words off a thousand word document! If it seems tedious to go through text lopping one word here and another there, it is. Sometimes it means sacrificing elements of personal style. But when you’ve got a word count to stick to, it works.

by A. C. Solomon

What techniques have you used to cull the dead weight in your writing or meet a word count limit? When writing to a limit do you often find yourself needing to cut text or add to a limping count? How do you handle meeting word count expectations?