An approximate equation is derived, which predicts the effect on variability at a neutral locus of background selection due to a set of partly linked deleterious mutations. Random mating, multiplicative fitnesses, and sufficiently large population size that the selected loci are in mutation/selection equilibrium are assumed. Given these assumptions, the equation is valid for an arbitrary genetic map, and for an arbitrary distribution of selection coefficients across loci. Monte Carlo computer simulations show that the formula performs well for small population sizes under a wide range of conditions, and even seems to apply when there are epistatic fitness interactions among the selected loci. Failure occurred only with very weak selection and tight linkage. The formula is shown to imply that weakly selected mutations are more likely than strongly selected mutations to produce regional patterning of variability along a chromosome in response to local variation in recombination rates. Loci at the extreme tip of a chromosome experience a smaller effect of background selection than loci closer to the centre. It is shown that background selection can produce a considerable overall reduction in variation in organisms with small numbers of chromosomes and short maps, such as Drosophila. Large overall effects are less likely in species with higher levels of genetic recombination, such as mammals, although local reductions in regions of reduced recombination might be detectable.