REPOST: Elmore Leonard’s Rules for Writing

I learned this morning that Elmore Leonard passed away, so my thoughts immediately returned to his wonderful “Rules for Writing” which I blogged about some years back. Here’s that post once again. Thank you for the lessons, Mr. Leonard.

As part of a series called “Writers on Writing,” published in The New York TimesElmore Leonard penned a thought-provoking article that first saw print on July 16, 2001. Every once in a while I remember that it exists and go back to reread Leonard’s observations.

I’m sympathetic to Elmore Leonard’s basic vision. I mean to say, I think I could hang out with the guy. When he talks about writing, I tend to nod my head. Grateful, reaffirmed, inspired. He explains in the opening paragraph, “These are rules I’ve picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I’m writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what’s taking place in the story.”

A long time ago I decided that ego was the enemy of good writing. Thing is, that’s a tough dragon to slay. These days, I most admire writers who get out of the way (another way of saying, “remain invisible”) — who strive to eliminate any trace of “look at me, I’m so darned clever!” from their writing. (That tends to be the exact opposite of what we are taught to appreciate in college English courses, so most of my adult writing life has been about trying to unlearn aspects of my college education.)

Regarding Leonard: I like his everyday guyness, his plainspeak, his pragmatism, his unpretentiousness. Unfortunately, and oddly, I’ve never really gotten into his books. Maybe I’ve tried the wrong ones, or not tried hard enough. The thing is, I want to like his books more than I actually do. It may be worth noting that so many of his books have been made into movies precisely because he is such a “show, don’t tell” styled writer. Or maybe it’s because he’s okay with sex and violence.

Though I encourage readers to go back to the full article (linked above), I’ll only post the ten rules along with an indispensable additional comment or two from Leonard (in the article, he provides more background on each rule). Enjoy. And remember, when it comes to writing, there are no rules. But guidelines can be instructive.

1. Never open a book with weather.

2. Avoid prologues

3. Never use a verb other than ”said” to carry dialogue.

Writes Leonard: “The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in.”

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb ”said” . . .

Says Leonard: “To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin.” For what it’s worth, there are a ton of adverbs used exactly this way in the Harry Potter books.

5. Keep your exclamation points under control.

6. Never use the words ”suddenly” or ”all hell broke loose.”

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.

And here comes my personal favorite:

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

Leonard comments: “Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

I love that phrase, “perpetrating hooptedoodle.”

NOTE: For more posts that touch on the writing process, click on the “writing process” icon on the right sidebar, beneath “CATEGORIES.” I’m trying to do more of this kind of thing on this blog, in the hopes that it might sell books, urm, be helpful to teachers, or to writers of any age!

ANOTHER NOTE: I lifted that sound, urm, from the legendary graphic novel, The Watchmen (soon to be a major motion picture). A character in there says it a lot, just a variation on “um,” but I like it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *