Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules for Writers

“If it sounds like writing,” says Elmore Leonard, “I rewrite it.”

Leonard’s writing sounds the way people talk. It rings true. In novels like Get ShortyRum Punch and Out of Sight, Leonard has established himself as a master stylist, and while his characters may be lowlifes, his books are received and admired in the highest circles. In 1998 Martin Amis recalled visiting Saul Bellow and seeing Leonard’s books on the old man’s shelves. “Bellow and I agreed,” said Amis, “that for an absolutely reliable and unstinting infusion of narrative pleasure in a prose miraculously purged of all false qualities, there was no one quite like Elmore Leonard.”

In 2006 Leonard appeared on BBC Two’s The Culture Show to talk about the craft of writing and give some advice to aspiring authors. In the program, shown above, Leonard talks about his deep appreciation of Ernest Hemingway’s work in general, and about his particular debt to the 1970 crime novel The Friends of Eddie Coyle, by George V. Higgins. While explaining his approach, Leonard jots down three tips:

  • “You have to listen to your characters.”
  • “Don’t worry about what your mother thinks of your language.”
  • “Try to get a rhythm.”

“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.

You can read more from Leonard on his rules in the 2001 Times article. And you can read his new short story, “Ice Man,” in The Atlantic.

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Comments (10)
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  • I definitely agree with the tips, especially avoiding adverbs to modify the word “said.” I hate reading sentences like, “he said enthusiastically.” You can describe “enthusiastic” through showing verses telling.

  • Debby Hanoka says:

    Okay … if we as writers are not supposed to use such phrases as “suddenly,” or “all hell broke loose” (even if it really did), then what about “the shit hit the fan?” I means, sometimes we writers just have to tell like that.

    • Robert McDonough says:

      Maybe YOU do.nMaybe you need to expand your imagination and nn writing skills, by challenging yourself to find a new way of doing it.nYou may surprise yourself.nTry SHOWING that shit hitting the fan.nDescribe a pile of excrement flying through the air and slopping onto the blades of a fan which subsequently sent thousands of chopped up little particle of human feces all over the walls and windows and furniture and the dinner that had just been served to your prospective in-laws.nI think the readers might find that more informative.

  • A good writer will never TELL you all shit broke loose. They will SHOW you the actual events happening and let yo draw your own conclusions.

  • Buster says:

    @Robert It’s not human feces, it’s always horse.

  • John Handforth says:

    I dunno, I tried reading Stay Cool and it was shite, like he’d written it all in a week.

  • Diana says:

    What rubbish. Donna Tartt broke the majority of those and she is considered to be the master of best-sellers to be compared to Dickens only maybe.

  • Peejay says:

    Never heard of Donna Tartt. I’ll have to look her up. I agree, though. It’s the public who really decides who is a successful writer, and if they don’t mind, why should editors or writers?

  • Eva Tortora says:

    Great article! Nice; keep up all the great work

  • Ravi Krish says:

    As a writer, I always describe the mind of the character, when he/she says something. Spoken words can be written within quotes. But the mind/ face expressions should come from the verbs and adverbs.
    She said with a frown, ‘Yes’.
    ‘Yes’ could have been uttered with 100 different intonations. You can’t let the reader guess.

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