In Honor of Elmore Leonard, Here Are Some Writing Tips from Famous Authors


Here are the ten rules in their shortened form:

  1. Never open a book with weather.

  2. Avoid prologues.

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

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

  5. Keep your exclamation points under control.

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

  7. Use regional dialect sparingly.

  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.

And then there’s Leonard’s golden rule, which is this: “My most important rule is one that sums up the 10. If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

Of course, the actual essay is much longer and expands on these ten rules, making it definitely worth a read in its entirety (you can also buy the whole book here — it’s great to have on a shelf!).  But there’s certainly a theme to Leonard’s rules: what’s important to him more than anything else is the plot. If you’re looking to tell a story, tell it; too much detail or too many clichéd phrasings will detract from the distinct story you’re trying to tell.

Mark Twain has a similar list that he published in an essay called On the Literary Offenses of James Fenimore Cooper. As with Leonard, the whole list is much longer and definitely needs to be read fully, but it ends with the following snappy advice:

An author should:

  1. Say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.

  2. Use the right word, not its second cousin.

  3. Eschew surplusage.

  4. Not omit necessary details.

  5. Avoid slovenliness of form.

  6. Use good grammar.

  7. Employ a simple, straightforward style.

And then there’s one of my all-time favorite pieces of writing advice from Kurt Vonnegut’s A Man Without a Country.

“Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons[…]. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”

Short, but to the point. I love this line – and I’m the type of person who uses semicolons far too often. (did you see the one I whipped out not even three paragraphs above this? Sacrilege!)

Speaking of which: what if you like weather or detailed descriptions of characters or semicolons? You’re not completely out of luck. Mark Twain himself isn’t always necessarily simple or straightforward, after all – and he certainly doesn’t shy away from writing in dialect. Does that make him a poor writer by Leonard’s or even his own standards? Of course not. These rules aren’t telling you that there’s only one way to write. What they’re trying to to is get you to think about what makes a story and what you might do to write your story more deliberately.

Oftentime using a set of rules when you’re creating something can help you come to a place that you wouldn’t have gotten to on your own without those rules. Sometimes it’s even just great for practice. That’s why so many people look to conventions when they write poetry – sometimes having to stick to a fixed rhyming scheme or metrical pattern can inspire you to overcome obstacles that you might usually encounter in your writing. Sure, conventional wisdom tells you not to confine yourself to coloring within the lines, so to speak, but sometimes forcing yourself to stay within those lines can have unexpectedly pleasant consequences.

Of course, the truest way to hone your writing skills is reading and writing as much as you can – the more you read from other authors and the more you practice writing yourself, the closer you’ll come to idetifying and developing your own voice. That’s why even if you aren’t planning to follow any of Leonard’s rules – or anyone else’s, for that matter – it’s helpful to read as many of them as you can and pick and choose which ones you’re going to follow. Trust me, it helps!

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One thought on “In Honor of Elmore Leonard, Here Are Some Writing Tips from Famous Authors

  1. All excellent advice – especially the part about developing your own voice: be honest and true to yourself, ignore the inner critic who urges imitation of others.

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