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Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing

10 Rules of Writing, courtesy of novelist extraordinaire Elmore Leonard.

Photo by Edward Simpson (CC BY-SA 2.0)

“I always refer to style as sound,” says Leonard. “The sound of the writing.” Some of Leonard’s suggestions appeared in a 2001 New York Times article that became the basis of his 2007 book, Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing. Here are those rules in outline form:

  1. Never open a book with the 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, patois, sparingly.
  8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
  9. Same for places and things.
  10. Leave out the parts readers tend to skip.

These are Leonard’s rules in point form. For context on each rule, check out this piece in the Detroit Free Press.

Source: Open Culture

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  1. Sensible rules and ones to which I have always adhered. I often leave out “said” too, after I’ve established the order of speakers. “It was a dark and stormy night” is a cliche for good reason. It’s a laugh line.

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

    This is the one piece of advice I see authors in constant disagreement about. Some say that “said” is the only way to go while others say that using more descriptive emotional verbs is key.

    All seem to agree that modifying said (or other verbs) with adverbs is a no-no, even when they sometimes do it themselves.

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    1. I don’t believe in “no-nos”. Sometimes a character could be facetious so it might help using a pointer. I can’t say I’ve ever lost sleep over an author’s use of adverbs, though. It’s way more annoying when the lines of dialogue are so banal either one of the characters could be talking and the writer is not even giving us a “said”.

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  3. I’m not sure about all of these rules, although I agree with the rules about said. When I was in school, we were taught “Said is dead” and told to write, “He hissed” He whispered” or “He scoffed”, none of which is as good as using said and then showing, rather than telling, how the character feels.

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    1. It bothers me so much when schools teach this. I’ve been banned from using the word “said” for entire classes; it’s the teacher’s rule and she’ll often take points off for breaking it. However, this only makes people run to the thesaurus and user words that don’t make sense, and as you said perpetuate the “telling instead of showing” idea.

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      1. Exactly! I’ve been reading “Sherlock Holmes: A Study in Scarlet.” There are moments where Sir Doyle doesn’t say “Holmes said” or “Watson said” but just goes back and forth between the two…like dialogue in real life!

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  4. Interesting — I write in a minimalist style, and I’ve been criticized for not writing like Henry James. So there you go. One man’s note is another man’s symphony. I had to look up Elmore Leonard and discover he wrote crime and suspense fiction. His rules definitely apply to readers of that kind of fiction. I think a writer has to understand the audience for whom they’re writing and a writer needs to edit. The ONLY point I can agree about completely is that of leaving out the parts no one would read. It’s difficult for a writer to do this without putting his/her manuscript aside for a while and then bringing it out and finding out what they, themselves, skip over.

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  5. Some of my favorite authors – Umberto Eco, Mary McCarthy – break half the rules. I like detail, but in stages. I don’t need a full page devoted to how someone looks in the morning. I never use the word never. It’s like locking the door then realizing you don’t have a key.

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  6. I think that this is really an interesting piece of advice… considering how debatable some of these rules are (like number 3 and 4). But what I think is just amazing is when they said to never use “suddenly” or “all hell breaks loose”. That, I think is very true. When using suddenly, it makes the writing seem less sophisticated and its just put out there point blank. Things need to be shown, not told directly in writing. Some good books do break this rule though, like Percy Jackson. :)

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    1. Now that was an in-depth analysis. Of course, it depends on the genre of books. Like Martha Kennedy just mentioned that Elmore Leonard wrote mystery. In mystery thrillers we just can’t afford to waste time on descriptions, and lengthy examinations…..those are the parts only the writer ends up caring about. In these type of novels the reader seeks to find out the hidden clues, the fleeting observations which are generally recorded in the most subtle manner by a good mystery writer. Percy Jackson is a book of a totally different genre. Teen fiction lovers look for entertainment in the form of humour, romance, and adventure. Suspense is mostly not an element. But there you go. Obviously, Percy Jackson readers will have different expectations from a good book than the Dan Brown readers. So basically, it all depends on the writer’s own style! He or she is totally independent to invent his or her rules, and break old ones, as per their own choice. We readers are just looking for something new on block.

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      1. Love the way you phrased that! (: Yep – different genres have different styles and rules. Imagine if we had to follow the same rule for each type of book. That would account for some really bad books :P

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      2. Well I’ve been a huge bookworm since i was like what. Four, five? But I haven’t been actually writing to post things since some weeks ago. Haha I wish I had more experience with that stuff! :) How about you? I wouldn’t think you’re exactly new at this stuff.

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      3. No! I just started a wordpress blog just yesterday! I usually write some stories or poems or just random things that come to my mind. I am a freaking 14 year old teenager which means I keep changing ideas everyday about a novel I am writing….. None of my novels get completed ever! I just posted a single story I think…..

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  7. My general rule is not to have them but I do try to avoid the world “My”…. Instead of “My sister told me,” I write, “Sister told me.” Also instead of writing , “My son did this today,” I write… “Son did this today…. or oldest Son did this today.”

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  8. These are all rules catering for lazy, largely ignorant readers. Name any truly great books that adhere to them.
    Take number 4:
    ‘No,’ he said calmly.
    ‘No,’ he insisted stubbornly.
    ‘No!’ he shouted angrily.
    Three entirely different pictures.
    The only rule I agree with is number 5.
    Even with 10, those are often the parts contained in a book one want to go through more than once and which are read with appreciation the second time around.

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    1. Why don’t you just admit Leonard’s rules are utter baloney…Many famous writers (I’m talking about the legendary, awesome ones, not the nobody’s) have broken all these rules.Just like Matthew Brown said in the post below, “Never limit yourself.” That’s the basis of good writing presuming one is well-versed in all the elements: grammar, syntax and style.

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    1. It means (I think!) that when you start writing, don’t talk about the weather. If you begin reading a book and it just stars with how great the weather is, it’s not the best opening, don’t you think? :)

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      1. Oh okay lol. I thought it meant don’t read books about weather. So if it says global warming on the title you are not allowed to open it. But yeah, I get it now. Weather is not interesting.

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      2. Haha, ‘if it says global warming on the title you are not allowed to open it’… That made me laugh. Don’t feel bad though, I re-read that rule a couple of times before I figured out what it was saying.

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  9. These rules are always very handy indeed and I have heard them so many times, but it is good to be reminded once in a while. I think I am going to print them out and stick them to my wall behind my computer. That said, I think one should be able to break a rule or two when necessary.

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  10. I really like the one about not describing people and just having them become real by what they say or do. I’m also a big fan of smaller paragraphs and fewer words altogether. Thanks for putting this up.

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  11. Here’s my take, point-by-point:

    1. Okay, manageable.
    2. What the hell? Is this guy serious?
    3. Not so sensible. Even authors disagree with this.
    4. Well, well, well. Hmmm.
    5. Okay, I must do this.
    6. Manageable.
    7. I don’t exactly agree with this one; many books have been written in this way.
    8. Err, depends.
    9. Same as 8
    10. Best among the points given.

    I think flexibility is the key here…and mostly, it depends on the message that you want to give and the audience to whom the work is addressed.

    My two cents.

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    1. I agree, not necessarily with your rule by rule response, but with the idea of flexibility and different styles and breaking rules. There is no hard and fast. It squashes air from the room, and removes openings for creativity or individual expression.

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    1. That’s great. The essence of writing is creation and too many rigid rules such as Leonard’s make out like he’s the god of writing when he isn’t. I’ve never been more shocked in my life.

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  12. Wow. He really said some things I nearly forgot. Especially the part about using “said”. The other part I agree with is “leaving parts out readers skip”. To every writer out there(including me)- let’s take heed to that-seriously.

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  13. And my personal Elmore Leonard favorite :
    “Write the book the way it should be written, then give it to somebody to put in the commas and shit.”

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