In ninth grade, I had big puffy hair, braces, and stirrup pants. I read Stephen King and Sweet Valley High, dissected a frog, and really dissected the nuances of youth group dances. And I tried the 20 percent challenge.
Or was it the 30 percent challenge? The actual number doesn't matter: the point is to shorten a piece of writing by some arbitrary percentage with the goal of making it tighter, making every word work 20 percent (or 30 percent or 15 percent) harder.
The first time my teacher, Michael Bruner, assigned this challenge, he handed us a piece of writing from a former student and instructed us to shorten it by 20 percent. That was much less intimidating; it's easy to be ruthless with somebody else's beloved adverbs and meandering descriptions. Once we had the idea, it was easier to apply the strategy to our own writing, and soon we discovered the particular words and phrases that tended to creep in and weigh down our prose.
Writers coming of age in today's Twitterverse might grasp more instinctively than my generation the value of brevity. But they'll still be surprised at how even a draft they thought was "finished" can still be trimmed by 20 percent--and how much stronger the resulting prose will appear.
Over the past twenty-five years, I have made progress toward taming the puffy hair, and I have expanded my reading repertoire. But when I'm stuck on a revision and not sure how to improve a piece of writing, I still fall back on the 20 percent challenge. Some things, thankfully, are more enduring than stirrup pants.
***Can you shorten this blog post by 20 percent? Let us know in the comments below!