Review: "The 10% Solution: Self-editing for the Modern Writer" by Ken Rand

One of my most problematic tendencies as an author is to overwrite.  When I’m starting into a new piece, if there’s a way to say something with four words instead of one, I’m likely to do it.  This is something I developed as a fledgling author back when I thought that if one adjective was good, then WOW, I could use EVEN MORE!!!  As I evolved–though practice, workshopping (both online and in-person), and study of how-to writing books–I learned the error of my ways.

Simply put, more is not better.  Precision is powerful.

Ken Rand’s book, “The 10% Solution: Self-Editing for the Modern Writer,” provides a framework to take your prose from verbose to streamlined in a direct, easy to follow format.  Let me be clear–this is not a book about plot, or characterization, or new ways to get in contact with your muse.  This is a book designed to clean up and polish your writing until it glows.

I wish I had found this book years ago.  I have learned, through lots of hitting and missing, many of the fundamentals, but seeing them laid out in front of me so clearly helped me to internalize them in a more concrete way than sort of hazily “knowing” them.

The title refers to the idea that your prose will be better if you can manage to cut 10% from your original draft.  It’s not a specific goal, but an illustration of what you might achieve.  It also specifies that this is self-editing for the modern writer.  This is important, because the process involves using the “find” tool in your word processor so while it will work for the pen-and-paper types, it will be a lot more cumbersome.

There are a number of problem words that signal places where prose might not be strong.  This book helps you work through them in an organized fashion.  Mr. Rand also points out that it is up to the author to think through each instance, to be sure that changing the text will actually make things clearer, more immediate and active.

Another benefit of the 10% Solution is that it frees me up to be as overwrought as I want in my first draft.  I can write down many different images as I go and know that my editing process will allow me to go back and think about which is the right one to use in a given place.  Knowing that lets me move quickly without my internal editor shrieking obscenities as I go.  It will get its turn later.

I decided to try the 10% Solution on a piece of my own work from back when I was starting out.  I believe the piece is fatally flawed and unlikely to see the light of publication, but I wanted to see what happened when it had been edited using the 10% Solution.

The original piece was 5,000 words long.  When I was done, it clocked in at 3,400.  Obviously, 32% is a lot higher than the projected 10%, but, as I’ve previously mentioned, I’m quite wordy, especially my older work.

Below, I’ve included two examples of a scene section where the hero flees from an inn.  (Elia, for what it’s worth, is the harp.)  The first version ran 126 words:

He quickly gathered what little was left of his supper: a crust of bread, a cube of pungent cheese, and an apple.  He laced Elia tightly into her case, grabbed up his sack, and slipped into the silent hallway.

With barely enough stealth as not to disturb the innkeeper, Bryon fled, down the stairs, through the common, and out to the stables.  Wingfala was awake, his eyes rolling, stamping at the muddy floor.  Bryon set the harp against the outside of the stall before entering to saddle the horse.
The darkness posed only small hindrance, for his hands knew their work, even without benefit of sight.  He moved quickly, and as he coaxed the bit between Wingfala’s grinding teeth, he allowed himself a sigh of relief.
The edited version of the same scene is 71 words long.

He stuffed the remains of supper into his sack, laced Elia into her case and slipped into the silent hallway.
Bryon fled down the stairs, through the common room, to the stables.  Wingfala stamped at the muddy floor, eyes rolling.  Bryon set the harp outside the stall before entering to saddle the horse.
The darkness posed small hindrance.  His hands knew their work.  He coaxed the bit between Wingfala’s grinding teeth.

I am convinced that Ken Rand’s “The 10% Solution” is a tool that would be useful to anyone wanting to clean up their writing, if they are just beginning or have been receiving positive comments from editors without any sales–even if they are already selling.  It never hurts to revisit those things we “know” in a new way.