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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Check out Assignment, the newest tool for Freelance writers


We’re sure that many of you are interested in self-publishing because you have a great idea for a novel or book you’d like to publish. If you’re like me and you just like writing about whatever topic you can get your hands on, then you’ve probably tried your hand at freelancing for a little while. But what do you do when you put time and energy into writing a piece for a client and don’t get the payment you’re owed?

Enter Assignmint, a relatively new start-up that seeks to “change freelance journalism as we know it,” according to Fast Company’s piece from last year. It helps digitally manage assignments, invoices, pitches, contract information, and payment between the client and freelancer.

This is an exciting development for creating and managing content online — not only because it helps freelance writers get paid for their time, but it also proves that there are still people out there willing to pay for creative content over the internet rather than obtain it for free. That’s certainly a great thing to remember when delving into the nebulous world of digital and self-publishing!

Check out some more information about Assignmint on the NYTimes blog, and be sure to go sign up for an Assignmint account for yourself!

Picking a topic for a book completely out of a hat

weingarten-skinnyAnyone who’s ever taken a creative writing course knows how beneficial choosing a random subject to write about can be. While “writing what you know” is the tried and true advice usually handed out to budding authors, sometimes shaking things up and picking a topic you might be unfamiliar with can help you hone your skills.

For Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten, however, picking a random topic isn’t just a fun exercise — it’s going to be the subject of his next nonfiction book. His upcoming work, One Day, will focus on the events of a single day in American History that was selected by combining numbers chosen out of a hat. Let’s hope a lot of interesting things happened on December 28, 1986, because that’s the date Weingarten has to work with.

Here’s the full press release as reported by Mediabistro’s Galleycat:

Weingarten, best known for his long-form pieces for The Washington Post and books such as The Fiddler on the Subway, promises an in-depth look at one day in the life of the people of the United States as it happened, “but from high above, covering matters great and small – wide-angled, panoramic, with the added illuminating dimension of time.” The date, chosen at random by a waitress and two children at an oyster lunch (each drew a number from a hat: one for date, month and year), is the starting point for a book that will study “the universal power of humble truths,” says the author.

What do you think about this upcoming book? Do you think selecting a topic for a  book at random is simply a way to garner publicity, or is it a fascinating experiment in and of itself? And what do you think will happen if there isn’t anything worth writing about that happened on that date? Let us know in the comments!

How Simon & Schuster is Doing Self-Publishing Wrong

DefaultYou’ve probably seen a lot of talk in the self-publishing community about Simon & Schuster’s recent partnership with Author Solutions to form Archway Solutions. If you want the full scoop, David Gaughran over at Let’s Get Digital has a great blog post outlining all the ways in which this team-up is actually terrible for self-publishing, namely because of Author Solutions’ penchant for disreputability.

After the jump, let’s check out the breakdown of what you’d be paying for with Archway’s various self-publishing packages:

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Publishing: Adapt or Die

If you’ve never listened to On The Media while tuned to your local radio station, then now’s the time to start! This insightful weekly podcast, which is produced by WNYC and broadcasted over NPR affiliates across the country, takes a look at how media coverage intersects with and has influences over global current events. Their most recent episode is part of their annual look at the publishing industry (ominously called “Publishing: Adapt or Die”) and includes segments about Amazon’s role in bookselling, how literary fiction might become a lost art, and the phenomenon of “knock-off” books in e-book markets that capitalize on already popular works.

You can listen to the hour-long show in its entirety here, but it’s also definitely worth checking out the rest of their website and downloading their podcast on iTunes or another podcatching program. It’s important to understand how the media affects its own production even if you aren’t looking to break into the market with a self-published book, so for those of us who are working to create their own literary brand, it’s sure to become an invaluable resource!

Top 5 Productivity Apps to Help Writers Get Motivated

You could have the fanciest word processing app on the market, but as anyone who’s currently working on their NaNoWriMo piece can tell you, it’s often tough to face the blank page and even tougher to keep your thoughts and words going once you’ve started. While it always helps to have an outline, sometimes you need a little more help getting motivated. That’s where these applications and programs all come in — some are silly, some are a little more soothing, but they were all created to get you out of your slump!

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5 Great Word Processing Tools For Writing Your Novel

Unless you’re the fastidious type of person who jots down all their prose by hand with paper and ink, or the pretentious, artsy type of person who owns a vintage typewriter and uses it regularly (guilty as charged!), then it’s probably been awhile since you’ve thought about just how easy the modern computer has made it for you to type up, format, and share your writing with others, even if you aren’t trying to publish it! In fact, most of my friends who’ve all grown up with word processing programs often complain that they have a hard time organizing their thoughts when they aren’t typing them out on a laptop.

However, as ubiquitous as writing on a computer has become, when you’re looking for something specific for your particular writing process, it’s still tough to find a program that will do just the trick. Here’s a few that we love in no particular order — some have better services while others have better prices, but it’s worth shopping around until you find the one that’s perfect for you! (And if these don’t suit your fancy, we’ll have some other options to tell you about next week)

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