Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing


THE MOST IMPORTANT RULE THAT SUMS UP ALL TEN: If it sounds like writing, re-write it.

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.
A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want.

3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
Because “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. 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 phonetically and loading the page with apostrophes, you won’t be able to stop.

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
In Ernest Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants what do the “American and the girl with him” look like? “She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.” That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story, and yet we see the couple and know them by their tones of voice, with not one adverb in sight.

9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
Long descriptions often bring the action and the flow of the story to a standstill.

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. In those moments, the writer is often writing for the sake of writing, perhaps taking another shot at the weather or going into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care.

  1. kuroiwriting said: I disagree with most of these??? Like I hare Ernest Hemingway’s writing precisely because its no description and a bunch of plain he said, she did. I read to be immersed in a world and I can’t do that with no details. And not saying said isn’t useful bit other words are great too. So leaving most of this advice for someone with a different writit style than mine
  2. allfuckingnamesaretaken said: @kuroiwriting totally agree with you. This ‘rules’ sucks, especially if you are writing fantasy or creating a new world, you need to describe otherwise your readers will never understand
  3. reylomancy replied to your post “Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing”Disagree with so many of theseReplyBlock reylomancy
  4. pagesofangels: I’m happy you’ve found these rules helpful to you, but I don’t think they work for certain genres.In fantasy or sci-fi, descriptions of places/things is vital for grounding a new world. Granted, if those descriptions go on and on and on, then it gets boring. That part is true.I also disagree that using adverbs is a mortal sin. If they’re used sparingly, and not after every “said”, then I think it’s fine. Try to find other ways of describing a tone of voice, yes, but using an adverb won’t destroy you as a writer.

Lots of great commentary on this post! I think it’s important to use critical-thinking skills whenever we read or hear something that feels “off” to us. I meant to add some commentary before I put it in the queue, but it looks like I forgot to do it! Let me go through and respond accordingly to each “rule.”

1. I somewhat agree. I think it’s way better to show a character’s reaction to weather, as it sets up who that person is. Just showing the weather–unless it is terribly unusual, like raining blood–isn’t helpful or interesting. Sure, it’s sunny, but who cares?

If you can’t think of a reason for your reader to care about something, don’t include it. This is important in most regards. Will your reader care that your MC had a turtle for a pet when they were young? Will your reader care that your MC used to be 120 pounds and is now 130? Will your reader care that your MC’s favorite game is Tetris?

Use context and critical thinking. If it’s not relevant and won’t be relevant later, don’t waste your reader’s time.

2. I’m on the fence when it comes to prologues. On one hand, if it’s not important enough to be a chapter, then why include it at all? On the other, if it’s actually important, then why not include it as an actual chapter? I kind of like them and will use them from time to time, but you need to ask yourself what things are important for your story.

I’m using a prologue that’s a few really short paragraphs to serve as a warning by one character to the reader so that they know the first character they see is not one to be trusted. I want it to start where it starts, but the first character you meet isn’t really the hero after all. I like the idea of starting off with the knowledge of the unreliable narrator, a fair warning that you can’t always trust what you see. Definitely took some inspiration from Lemony Snicket for that.

3. I very much disagree with this. “Never”? Really? Only Sith deal in absolutes. Honestly, though, it’s fine to use “said” for most of it, but it is more efficient to use a good verb than to drag it out. “She huffed” is more interesting than “she said with a huff.”

4. I think this is part of the third one. If you are only using the word “said,” then it’s basically necessary to use an adverb in order for the reader to know how something is being said. If you use other verbs, however, adverbs become less helpful. If it’s not something you want to focus on, throw in that adverb and move on. But if it’s important that a character is reacting a certain way, then don’t just use a throwaway adverb. Get your meaning across.

5. Yes, you should control your exclamation points. Should you limit them that much? Heck no! In narration, avoid exclamation points if you are writing in the third-person. First-person narrative allows for exclamation points. It’s about how people think and talk. And dialogue will have exclamations in it. It’s natural. But you should use moderation in terms of exclamation points. Really comb over your writing and ask yourself if each one is actually necessary or if a period or rewording the sentence would work better.

6. I more or less agree. They are cheap and uninteresting. Give me something that doesn’t sound like the author thinks is amusing. “Out of nowhere” is also uninteresting. I recommend avoiding it, because your narrator isn’t surprised. If it’s first-person and your character is especially oblivious, sure, I guess. But if you have to justify why “suddenly” is acceptable, then you’d probably do better just explaining how something happened.

7. Dialect is a slippery slope. Did I read “Huckleberry Finn” in high school? Yes. Could I remember literally anything that happened in it for any quiz? No.

Dialect can get extremely [GASP! An adverb! And exclamation points!] distracting and draw attention away from the stuff the reader is actually supposed to pay attention to. A little bit of an accent can be okay, but dropping in apostrophes (which are hardly ever used correctly in this regard) makes things confusing for the reader without adding anything of value. You can remind the reader of the accent every so often, but don’t go all-out.

8. Detailed descriptions of characters often read like “My Immortal.” Don’t spend entire paragraphs describing a character, or your reader’s eyes will glaze over. Sprinkle details in after you get the basics down. It’s too overwhelming to dump all that information at one time.

9. Again, you should describe your surroundings and objects, but try not to devote too much time to it. I think the environment is free game for descriptions, as it gives your reader a sense of time and place. But if you spend two entire pages describing one area, it can get tedious. As for items, give the reader the general idea. You don’t have to give the reader every single detail about it. Leave a few things to the imagination.

Moderation is key.

10. This one seems particularly callous, but the idea behind it rings true. If you spend two lengthy paragraphs describing the weather, will the reader benefit from looking at either paragraph?

What difference does it make to the reader? Does it advance character development or anything related to the plot? Is it something that defines when and where things occur? If you have weak answers to any of those three questions, you need to evaluate whether the content needs to stay.

Revision means tightening up your work and making sure that every word counts. Every word is important for your reader. Don’t gum up the page with sticky sentences that are meaningless. If it’s the kind of writing you’d do to make your essay longer without putting in any effort, then you probably need to cut it.

That’s pretty much the meat of the matters, as far as I can come up with. [Note that I don’t care if I end sentences with prepositions! And look! More exclamation points!]  Writing “rules” shouldn’t be followed so strictly. Rather than immediately disagreeing, try to think about the essence of what they mean, rather than how it was worded. A lot of these suggestions are quite helpful, but they are framed in ways that are rude and unhelpful. Constructive criticism is meant to be useful. If it seems like criticism for the sake of criticism. Take a step back and see if you can gain anything from it.

If a reviewer says you have weak dialogue but words it rudely, you may have the knee-jerk instinct to reject their comment. But are you learning anything as a writer? Deconstruct what people say and find meaning where you can. Some people are mean for the sake of being mean, but you can learn from anything if you put your mind to it.

Don’t let it get you down. Just push forward and get better at your craft in your own way.

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