The Fifteen Percent Rule

written by Joe Kraus

  1. I believe – after Hemingway, Strunk & White, and most of Humphrey Bogart’s characters – that classic American “style” turns on brevity. Say what you have to say, then call it a wrap.
  2. Like almost everyone else I know, revision frustrates me. When I write a piece that feels finished, I have a hard time working up the will to operate on it further. Yet I know I have to. I know art comes more from revision than inspiration.
  3. If it helps, I have a rule, or at least a recommendation: once you have an essay or a story that “does it,” that accomplishes what you realize you set out to do, pledge to cut it by 15 percent. Don’t cheat. First get to the stage where it feels finished. Then commit to cutting almost the exact number. (If you’re not much of a math person, take your word count and multiply it by .85. That’s your target.)
  4. Start by finding the part that does the least to move the piece forward. In a 3000-word essay, that will usually be a paragraph that, as you wrote, was as much about ‘catching your breath’ as an author as it was moving the argument forward. You wrote it because you needed to sum up for yourself what you’d been saying. It isn’t wasted work, but it’s more a half step forward than a full.
  5. Cut it. Take a deep breath if you must, but highlight the sucker and hit delete. If it really hurts, save the file under a new name (I usually go with Title Year-Month-Day because then it gets alphabetized chronologically) and slice with the knowledge that you can go back.
  6. Assuming you write a standard length paragraph, that should cut roughly 150 words, about a third of the 450 you’d need from a 3000-word piece.
  7. Then kill your darlings. Find sentences that look good, but that mostly just repeat or anticipate. They’re in there. Don’t flatter yourself that you drafted with perfect precision. Find them and take them out.
  8. You should always do that, even as you’re drafting, but work here with a purpose. You’re a button man for the mob. It’s not personal. It’s business.
  9. Expect that to take another five percent off your word count. In an average 3000-word essay, that’s five or six sentences, roughly 150 words.
  10. Finally, get surgical. If a word or phrase can go, ice it.
  11. Start with the low-hanging fruit. Kill any extra ‘that’s or ‘which’s. Look for prepositional phrases that add four or five words to the end of otherwise tight sentences. Take out half your adjectives and at least three quarters of your adverbs. Tighten subjects (grammatical subjects) that take three or four words.
  12. Then read your work aloud, sentence by sentence, testing for words you don’t need. If you’ve played along this far, it can get addictive. You’ve cut things that mattered. What’s an extra “in the end” or “however” next to the blood on your hands from that pretty, deleted sentence?
  13. At this point, I sometimes feel I could go on forever. The cutting starts to feel like the goal. There’s always another sentence to slice. You can always make the piece even more elegantly slender.
  14. Here’s where the “rule” comes in handiest. You’ve got a goal. You know your number. Work to it, but not beyond. You’ll get the remaining five percent one superfluous word at a time, but you’ll get there. Then stop.
  15. Finally, set the piece down for at least a day. When you go back to it, read with one question foremost: is anything missing? If not (and usually it isn’t) then you’ve done your job. It may not feel any better to you at first (it rarely does for me), but trust you’ve made a real difference. As I re-read my own work, as the memory of specific surgeries fades, I usually get more and more satisfied. I’d thought it was finished before. Now I know, boiled down and tighter, it probably is.


Joseph Kraus teaches Creative Writing and American Literature at the University of Scranton where he also directs the honors program, and is the co-author of An Accidental Anarchist, (Academy Chicago 2001) which served as a basis for Aleksandar Hemon’s National Book Award finalist The Lazarus Project. He’s had his creative work published, among other places, in The American Scholar, Oleander Review, Riverteeth, and Birkensake. He’s also won a 2004 Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Memorial poetry prize, the 2008 Moment Magazine/Karma Foundation Prize for short fiction, and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2010 by Southern Humanities Review.

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