On Leonard’s Rules of Writing

Posted: March 17, 2010 in Jeff Holland, Threat Quality, writing
Tags: , , , ,

(Or, “SHUT UP, OLD MAN, I’ll use a damn adverb if I want!”)

After watching the premiere of “Justified” on FX* – spoiler alert, it was pretty badass and I recommend you catch it one of the 20 other times it will air in the next week – I remembered to track down and link to an article Elmore Leonard wrote a while back, his “10 Rules for Writing.”

I love Elmore Leonard. Read a Leonard book, and you know that at the least you’ll be amused, and at the most you’ll probably have a new favorite book to add to your list. There’s something about everything he writes that immediately assures the reader, “Don’t worry – I know exactly what I’m doing.” So, if the man wants to lay down some basic ground rules, chances are they’re going to be practical and useful.

And indeed they are. Except for two that just drive me nuts, not least of which because I’m a little guilty of them myself.

Now, some of them are fairly obvious but probably need to be said, like:

  • Never open with the weather
  • Keep your exclamation points under control, and
  • Use regional dialect sparingly (this is why people make fun of you, Chris Claremont – not every Russian guy constantly shouts “Bois Moi!”).

The best of them is “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip,” of which Leonard says:

A rule that came to mind in 1983. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.

But man, there’s something about these two:

“Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue”
“Never use an adverb to modify the use said”

that kinda chaps my ass.

It seems restrictive for the sake of restrictiveness. Sometimes a guy doesn’t say something. He says it in a certain way that can’t be conveyed within the dialogue itself. Example (not a good one, but it carries my point):

“It looks like I’ll be on the toilet again,” Gary said to his wife.

“It looks like I’ll be on the toilet again,” Gary whispered to his wife.

One of these tells the reader that one person delivered information verbally to another. The other tells the reader one person delivered information quietly – and the reader can infer from this that he’s worried about other people hearing. There is a notable difference that is more quickly and effectively explained to the reader than trying to shoehorn it into the dialogue somehow, like:

“Come closer, Meredith, so the whole room doesn’t hear,” Gary said. “It looks like I’ll be on the toilet again.”

Similarly, I know it’s popular to just ban the adverb entirely – hey look, there’s one now! – and I get the point, that it’s overused by people who are trying too hard to be descriptive, but…sometimes you need an adverb.

“It looks like I’ll be on the toilet again,” Gary whispered callously to his wife.

“It looks like I’ll be on the toilet again,” Gary whispered sadly to his wife.

VERY DIFFERENT MEANINGS now, through the use of one simple adverb. Now, obviously, don’t get carried away with it, and sure, there are some that work better than others:

“It looks like I’ll be on the toilet again,” Gary whispered lustily to his wife.

“It looks like I’ll be on the toilet again,” Gary whispered erotically to his wife.

See? Similar meaning, but…well, I think you get it at this point.

As writers get better, and more experienced, they know what rules are important and which are just “rules.” And sure, it’s a good idea for veterans to share their findings with rookies. But the way rookies become experienced is by using every writing tool available to them and figuring out which ones work for them and which should be avoided. So declaring “There shall be no more verbs to follow dialogue!” needlessly kneecaps a beginner.

So, new writers: trust your elders – Elmore Leonard knows what he’s talking about. But at the same time – if you want to shout viciously, or blabber mirthlessly, or whisper erotically (actually, don’t whisper erotically), give it your best shot.

*Fun trivia: they changed the name from “Lawman” to avoid comparisons with Steven Seagal’s A&E reality show, and unfortunately are now forever linked to Justin Timberlake’s first album. Sometimes you just can’t win.

  1. http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/feb/20/ten-rules-for-writing-fiction-part-one



    … But ignore Sarah Waters’ assertion that Cormac McCarthy has “a deliberately limited vocabulary.” She has no idea what she’s talking about.

  2. Hsiang says:

    It is partly cloudy but pleasantly warm here today! I LOVE hooptedoodle!!
    “TOP O’ TH’ MORNIN’ TO YE!!!!”, he shouted from the toilet ethnically.

  3. V.I.P. Referee says:

    Bravo, Hsiang! BRAVO!!! I’m perfectly seething with anticipation for the rest of that piece.

  4. Tad says:

    good thing that FotC don’t follow no rules:

    “What are you doing here, I thought I killed you yesterday!”
    Grumbled Albi quite racistly.

  5. Jeff Holland says:

    Exactly! Otherwise I would not have known to what degree of racistness Albie was growling.

  6. Moff says:

    (1) Thank you for posting this. It reminded me to read something related that had been sitting in my inbox for weeks. (I have blogged about it here.)

    (2) I think the deal with “said” and adverbs is that they’re so egregiously abused by novices. I love this McSweeney’s piece because at a certain age, didn’t we all think the best way to juice up our writing was to switch out dialogue verbs? I did, anyway, and I think a lot of folks don’t ever learn otherwise.

    I mean, I think the way rookies actually become experienced is not by using every tool available and seeing which work, but by using a limited (though large) number of tools and then having a more experienced hand provide guidance. And since more-experienced hands are often miserly with their time, I think it makes more sense to advise new writers to stick with “said” and to avoid adverbs—and then to have the veteran show them where those things might be useful—than to have to cut those things out of the copy. If you’re new and you want someone to read your stuff (whether to buy it or just to critique it), you want it to look as professional as possible, and better to err on the side of just “said” and no adverbs than the opposite.

    And as for experienced writers, obviously, there’s an understanding that rules are not really rules but rather principles or ideals; but I think especially in the case of adverbs, it’s good exercise to stop when you use an adverb and ask if it really needs to be there or if there isn’t a more showful and less tellful way to produce the effect. You can’t, always, or it’s not worth the time; but it’s still worthwhile to consider it.

  7. braak says:


  8. Hsiang says:

    …”, said Braak.

  9. Jeff Holland says:

    “FUCK EVERYONE I AM NEVER USING SAID AGAIN” is a sentence that is unlikely to be improved upon with any further verbiage. Good counterpoint, Braak.

    To add to the linkage, here are some writing tips from Steve Martin, from his book of essays, “Pure Drivel”:

    “Because topics are in such short supply, I have provided a few for writers who may be suffering in the darker climes. File some of these away, and look through them during the suicidal winter months:

    “‘Naked Belligerent Panties’: This is a good sexy title with a lot of promise.

    “Something about how waves at the beach just keep coming and coming and how amazing it is (I smell a bestseller here).”


  10. jge says:

    My favourite novel that starts with the weather: The man without qualities. Another: Newromancer.

  11. braak says:

    Also 1984. Elmore Leonard’s rules for writing are really great to follow if you want to write exactly like Elmore Leonard.

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