Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing

Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules of WritingElmore Leonard is not one of my favorite writers, but I will allow that he has talent. And if forced to choose between Stephen King, J. K. Rowling, Danielle Steele. and Leonard, I’d pick Leonard. Faint praise, I know. It’s no wonder that so many of his novels have become films, because that is about the depth at which he writes. He is the only writer I know who is still able to publish pulp novels.

A few years ago, he published a writing book. Actually, “book” is a kind assessment. In fact, even to call it a pamphlet would be to pump it up. It’s about 500 words: one typed sheet of paper. And at $14.99, Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing is pretty expensive. Still, the rules are useful.

1. Never Open a Book With Weather

Here he telling writers to get on with plot. Don’t try to set the mood—no one is interested in the mood. Many years ago, I saw Kurt Vonnegut lecture at my school. He provided this same information by saying, “Burn the first three pages of your novel, because you probably used it to describe a sunflower.” Vonnegut also provided another rule that Leonard doesn’t touch on, “Every story needs an Iago.” I don’t believe this, but the advice is good: it makes the writing so much easier.

2. Avoid Prologues

See 1.

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

This rule made me think. And I’m still thinking about it. In discussing this rule, Leonard writes, “I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with ‘she asseverated,’ and had to stop reading and go to the dictionary.” I do, however, think there are times when something other than “said” is in order.

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

See 3.

5. Keep Your Exclamation Points Under Control

Boring advice, or just useless? You decide!

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

See 5. See also: cliches, writing of.

7. Use Regional Dialect, Patois, Sparingly

Lots of great writers do this. Think: Faulkner. And while I’m on the subject, it really bugs me when people spell mama, moma. Moma is the Museum of Modern Art.

8. Avoid Detailed Descriptions of Characters

Jack Lord HairI doubt this is a big problem for most writers. I know I describe characters only as much as absolutely necessary. I think people like some notion of what a character looks like. In my current novel, I provide three details about the main character: tall, thin, Jack Lord hair.

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

See 1.

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

See 1.

As you can see, Leonard’s 10 rules are really just 5. Actually, you can boil them all down to this: write only action and dialog. And that’s pretty good advice. But not worth $14.99.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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