Leonard's Rules of Writing

When Elmore Leonard died at age 87 this week, he left behind a prodigious body of work. I noted that several of the obituaries and appreciations of him that I read referred to him as a "man of few words," certainly an ironic epitaph since he produced so many of them.

Ironic but also true for he was a man who eschewed writerly flourishes. He wrote clean and spare prose, with no words wasted and that is what he advocated for other writers.

In 2001, Leonard wrote a piece for The New York Times in its series called "Writers on Writing." In it he talked about his philosophy of writing and listed ten rules for writers. They are worth reviewing now as we think about Leonard's life's work and what he has meant to modern culture.

Elmore Leonard's Rules of Writing

1. Never open a book with weather. If it's only to create atmosphere, and not a character's reaction to the weather, you don't want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people.
2. Avoid prologues. They can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword.
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. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied.
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. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange.
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." This rule doesn't require an explanation.
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.
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

Those were the rules that he professed to follow in his writing and they are good rules for any of us who attempt to put words on paper or even in the ether that is the Internet. But he followed all of those ten up with one more which he said summed up everything: "If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it."

I haven't read all of Leonard's books - well, he wrote about a million of them - but I have read a goodly number and I can say definitively that the writing in those books never sounded like writing. It sounds like two guys talking or occasionally like a man and a woman talking, but mostly two guys. Leonard specialized in bad guys, only some of whom had a heart of gold.

Of course, the people who make movies loved his books and made many movies out of them. Most memorable for me probably was Get Shorty.

Television loved his characters, too, and just recently has used them in a show called Justified. Leonard reportedly liked what they had done in adapting his writing for television and had written a couple of sequels to the original book. He was apparently working on another sequel at the time of his death, so one could say that here was a writer who died with his boots on. But Leonard would excoriate such verbiage. We'll just say he died with his pen and yellow pad in hand, which was probably just about the way he would have wanted it.


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