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Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules of Writing [Annotated]

Discussion in 'Journalism topics only' started by Jones, Jan 10, 2008.

  1. Jones

    Jones Active Member

    My wife picked me up Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing. Apparently, she thinks I need some work. The book is a little weird -- it’s essentially an article that Leonard wrote for the New York Times a few years ago, illustrated and handsomely bound with thick card-stock pages. Literally, it’s a five-minute read. But I thought I would share his rules, for the purposes of discussion, and I thought I would annotate them, too, because my ego is just that unstoppable.

    A note: I believe Mr. Leonard is speaking mostly of books, and mostly of fiction, but I think most of his rules stand true for any writing, really.

    1. Never Open a Book With Weather.

    [I can buy this. Even if you’re writing about a tornado, it’s probably more effective to begin with the proverbial calm before the storm, described abstractly -- clothes hanging limp on the line, birds without wind to fight. I can see the temptation to open a piece with rain, especially a sad story, but I can how that might whiff like effort and fail, too.]

    2. Avoid Prologues.

    [Get right to action, I’m guessing he’s thinking -- that prologues are like throat-clearing. I wish I’d read this before I put prologues at the starts of my books. Although he does say that non-fiction can sometimes benefit from quick, illustrative background story, I still feel bad -- and thinking on it, I can see how most books with prologues wouldn’t suffer much for losing them.]

    3. Never Use a Verb Other Than “Said” to Carry Dialogue.

    [“Absofuckinglutely,” he said.]

    4. Never Use an Adverb to Modify the Verb “Said.”

    [I’d say, gravely, “Never use an adverb” and stop there. But you've gotta start the cleansing somewhere.]

    5. Keep Your Exclamation Points Under Control.

    [I wish Phil Hellmuth had taken note of this before he started writing! his! goddamn! poker! books! Mr. Leonard believes that the maximum acceptable usage rate is two or three per 100,000 words of prose, unless you’re Tom Wolfe. I say that limit’s a little generous.]

    6. Never Use the Words “Suddenly” or “All Hell Broke Loose.”

    [The second I can see. However, I’ve used “suddenly” on occasion -- usually when something happens suddenly -- and I’m not quite sure why Mr. Leonard objects to it, because he writes, “This rule doesn’t require an explanation.” Perhaps it’s slightly hacky, or if you’re writing well, the reader should know when something happens suddenly without your having to point it out.]

    7. Use Regional Dialect, Patois, Sparingly.

    [I don’t think I’ve ever written quotes in anything other than English, properly spelled, but I can see how it might be tempting to do it, and I can see how it might be annoying as fuck for the reader.]

    8. Avoid Detailed Descriptions of Characters.

    [Mr. Leonard points to Hemingway’s spare descriptions as justification for this rule. I’m torn on this one. I don’t like a lot of description, but I like some -- I like at least the outlines of an image; not a photographic recollection, but a sharp sentence or a paragraph. I’ll admit, though, that I like description that’s kind of open-ended rather than specific. “He looks at his shoes when he walks.” Like that. Of course, maybe that makes me a pretentious douchebag.]

    9. Don’t Go Into Great Detail Describing Places or Things.

    [Mr. Leonard argues this sin, like the others he fights against, hurts the flow of action. As with characters, I like some description of place -- not reams, but a few evocative turns. I think place is pretty damned important. No Country for Old Men is a different book and movie if it’s set anywhere other than West Texas. And John Steinbeck starts The Grapes of Wrath with three pages of scene-setting, mostly writing about the dust. It’s an incredible introduction to the world he’s writing about. I know those are a couple of examples that might be the exceptions that prove the rule, but I think even lesser writers can get some mileage out of having the reader look out the window for a second.]

    10. Try to Leave Out the Part that Readers Tend to Skip.

    [This isn’t as obvious as it sounds. For me, it's that big background paragraph that almost always accompanies profiles. I skip that shit as a reader; I try to as a writer, although sometimes it’s too easy to write and it ends up in there. But really, it doesn’t matter what someone did ten years ago or where they were born or where they went to school. Unless you’re writing an obit, what matters is, What are they doing right now?]

    Mr. Leonard concludes with his most golden of rules: If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

    [As if I’d let him have the last word.]
  2. Thanks for posting this, Jones. Now I can go to bed realizing I've regularly broken almost all of those rules. I've spent 300 words of a 500-word story describing a mole on my subject's left ear after spending the first 200 providing detail about his hometown during a rainstorm. :'(
  3. Gold

    Gold Active Member

    Elmore Leonard is the greatest freaking writer in the world. If I have missed any of his books, it is a short list. Nobody writes or has written better dialogue.

    Jones, please thank your wife for bringing this to our attention.
  4. Angola!

    Angola! Guest

    I take it Mr. Leonard isn't fond of Faulkner?
  5. pallister

    pallister Guest

    I'm gonna wait for the movie version of the book.
  6. John

    John Well-Known Member

    As for rule No. 7 -- Use Regional Dialect, Patois, Sparingly -- I'd say William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy made it work for them pretty damn well.

    Then again, I think they're the two best writers of the past 100 years.
  7. lono

    lono Active Member

    The best advice I ever got was from my very first editor, way back in the Stone Age.

    I asked him what the key to great writing was and he told me this: "Tell the fucking story."
  8. goalmouth

    goalmouth Well-Known Member

    Rule 11: Don't use a typewriter or computer, it encourages prolixity.

    Leonard writes his manuscripts in longhand on a legal pad, and his daughter types them up.
  9. Bob Cook

    Bob Cook Active Member

    I wonder if this is Mr. Leonard's acknowledgement that most readers these days aren't going to sit through long soliloquies about things that don't appear to be advancing the plot, especially because most writers do them badly. I'll blame TV for this impatience.
  10. Simon_Cowbell

    Simon_Cowbell Active Member

    No stammered?

    No muttered?

    No screamed?

    No hissed?

    No cooed?


    That would be an absofuckinglute strait jacket for me.
  11. Ace

    Ace Well-Known Member

    Further proof that Leonard knows his stuff.
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