Elmore Leonard's 10 Simple Rules For Writing

Keep your exclamation points under control! And other lessons for better communication and prose from the late, great master of modern crime fiction.

Anyone who has ever picked up a book by Elmore Leonard knows that putting the book down is often harder than just finishing the damn thing. Once you get going and feel the high of reading a Leonard story, eating, sleeping, or even having a conversation with a friend or spouse can’t compete.

The recently deceased author of 45 novels, including Get Shorty, Hombre, Swag, Raylan, and Glitz (he died at work on his 46th), was reluctant to write about his own writing. But back in 2001 the New York Times convinced him to make a list of his 10 writing rules.

Leonard introduced these rules as tips he "picked up along the way" the purpose of which was to help him "remain invisible" in his own writing.

Although not all of these rules apply to all types of writing, they are a reminder of the importance of elevating your writing rather than yourself. This lesson applies not just to fiction writers, but to job applicants, entrepreneurs pitching ideas, or anyone trying to communicate through the written word. And it’s a lesson that is often abandoned when a writer tries to showboat his or her intelligence or makes the mistake of overwhelming the reader with detail.

1. Never open a book with weather.

The reader is likely to "leaf ahead looking for people."

2. Avoid prologues.

Leonard thinks they are annoying and if the prologue is backstory, "you can drop it in anywhere."

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

Since "dialogue belongs to the character," anything else is simply "the writer sticking his nose in."

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

Leonard writes that these words that distract and interrupt "the rhythm of the exchange," are a "mortal sin."

5. Keep your exclamation points under control.

Leonard’s law: "You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose."

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

Leonard writes that this rule doesn’t even require an explanation.

7. Use regional dialect, patois sparingly.

"Once you start," writes Leonard, "you won't be able to stop."

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

Leonard cites a Hemingway short story in which the only physical description of a couple introduced as the ''American and the girl with him'' is: ''She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.'' Enough said.

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

They bring "the flow of the story to a standstill."

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

Leonard advises writers to "think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose [with] too many words in them." And he reminds us, "I'll bet you don't skip dialogue."

Leonard’s ultimate rule sums up the previous ten.

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

We return to Leonard’s credo: A writer should "remain invisible" and "not distract the reader from the story with obvious writing." Nothing—including proper usage and lessons learned in English composition classes—will be allowed to "disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative."

[Image: Carlos Osorio | AP Photos | Flickr user R. Nial Bradshaw]

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4 Comments

  • Frank

    Cussler and Leonard are on different planets as writers: their material, their subjects, their language, their audiences (mostly). They set out to do different things and, therefore, will do them differently. Cussler's audience(s) look(s) for different stuff than Leonard's. "Elmore's Rules" apply to his writing and those who want to emulate him (a worthy ambition). They don't apply to Cussler's work and--if you want to call it that--style.