Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing

Master of crime fiction, one of the most prolific writers of our time, Elmore Leonard shared his ten rules of writing in a short piece for The New York Times.

1. Never open a book with weather.

“It was a dark and stormy night” is the most parodied opening phrase in literary history for a reason.

Also, only those who have nothing to say talk about the weather.

Are you sure you want to talk to your readers about the weather?

2. Avoid prologues.

A foreword, an introduction, and then a prologue.

Why not add fifteen minutes of ads while you’re at it?

The truth is that we writers tend to use prologues because we feel there’s some crucial information we must share with our readers, and we feel that they’re not going to be able to deduce that information from reading the rest of the story.

Or we write prologues into existence because the opening of the story is weak, boring, and would put most readers to sleep.

In either case, it’s best that one avoids prologues.

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

This is fantastic advice.

I used to be obsessed about coming up with all sorts of words and expressions to replace said, to describe the way my characters spoke a bit better, but it’s all a mess of time, because what counts most is what the characters are saying.

If you cannot convey emotion through the words that one character says, then nothing that comes after that can fix it.

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”… he admonished gravely.

To paraphrase Stephen King, the road to hell is paved with adverbs. But to use adverbs in such a way? It’s one of the deadly sins of writing.

5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.

This rule has a lot to do with the fact that writers who abuse exclamation points do it because the writing doesn’t have an emotional undertone attached to it.

Place an exclamation point at the end of bland sentence, and it accomplishes nothing, but it fools the writer into thinking that he’s added emotions to what is the literary equivalent of two strangers talking about the weather for five minutes straight.

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

He said suddenly!

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

Some writers get addicted to writing like this.

Every single character has to speak with a dialect, in some odd manner, and soon it all resembles a circus more than anything else.

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

I remember when I was sixteen, something like that, and I had this rather stupid idea that I had to describe my character. Well, I was writing a first person narrative, and the obvious way to describe your character was to place them in front of a mirror or do some other insane tricks.

At one point I remember I even put a character write a short story about my narrator, just so my narrator got a description.

9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.

Writing is about action.

About things happening. About stars colliding, saving the universe, overcoming a heartbreak, or changing one’s perception of what is real and what is not.

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

This is the equivalent of telling someone to just be themselves when they tell you they’re nervous.

It seems to be such a dumb piece of advice.

It’s not.

We often fall so in love with the words we write, even the bad ones, that we rationalize them into being somehow important for the story itself, even though they’re not.

We must try to edit out the parts that are boring, obvious, obnoxious, when nothing happens, there’s no conflict at all, etc.


I also believe that Elmore Leonard shared with us another often difficult to interpret piece of advice:

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

Great writing flows in such a way that we forget we are reading. We forget about our environment. We forget about ourselves.

Great writing does not sound like writing. It feels like magic. The kind of magic one had to sacrifice an insane amount of time in order to create.

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