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August 21, 2013

Elmore Leonard’s Rules for Writing

The great Elmore Leonard, author of forty-five novels and master of the crime thriller, died yesterday morning at home.  He was eighty-seven.  He leaves behind legions of fans and some very wise and brilliant and useful words about writing.  I especially like numbers 3, 4, 5, and 10, although I agree with all of them.  These rules are excerpted from his more detailed 2001 New York Times article.

Writers on Writing:  Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle

By ELMORE LEONARD
Published: July 16, 2001

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. If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules. Still, you might look them over.

1. Never open a book with weather.

2. Avoid prologues.

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

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” . . .

. . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin.

5. Keep your exclamation points under control.

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.”

I have noticed that writers who use ”suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apostrophes, you won’t be able to stop.

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

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

Unless you’re Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language or write landscapes in the style of Jim Harrison.

And finally:

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

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.

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

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.