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 (20)
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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.

  • Clark Zlotchew says:

    Why not, “She frowned and said ‘Yes.’ ”
    And, I don’t agree with Elmore Leonard on always using “said.” Back to the frown and the yes: Why not, “She mut­tered ‘Yes, Dammit!’ ?”

  • john taylor says:

    Who gives a shit?

  • Ted E Johnston says:

    The con­stant rep­e­ti­tion of “said” in “Ice Man” drove me nuts. I see noth­ing wrong with “mum­bled,” mut­tered,” “screeched,” and oth­er such. Those verbs exist for a rea­son. But I agree with the “rule” that adverbs should almost nev­er mod­i­fy “said.” He “said breath­less­ly” is dread­ful. It’s like using a crutch to try to make anoth­er word stronger. Either find a one word verb that con­tains a breath­less qual­i­ty (“he wheezed”) or show the breath­less­ness in the dia­logue, “Don’t know…what happened…but…it’s bad…real…”

    How­ev­er, I would say nor­mal­ly “said” should be the pre­ferred choice. It seems arti­fi­cial to dis­play a panoply of syn­onyms for “said.” But occa­sion­al­ly, a more pre­cise option might be just what is need­ed.

    I detest “nev­er do this” rules. There are just too many vari­ables to con­sid­er that make “nev­er” a bit too hard and fast.

  • Glenys says:

    So the phrase
    ‘Show, don’t tell”, is what the major­i­ty are say­ing. show­ing involves descrip­tion of where the char­ac­ter is, The facial expres­sions, the emo­tions in the moment. How do you not tell these things and show them instead?
    With dia­log, is it always nec­es­sary to add he said or she said. Could it be left to the read­er to know who is speak­ing?

  • David Tunno says:

    How does one cre­ate a strong sense of place with­out a detailed descrip­tion of the place? How do you cre­ate images of the char­ac­ters in the read­ers’ minds with­out describ­ing them in some detail? Pro­logues serve a pur­pose if the events and char­ac­ters in them are of a dif­fer­ent time and/or place than the main sto­ry, but serve to set up the main sto­ry, per­haps giv­ing it a his­toric back­ground. If you only use “said,” you’ll be cre­at­ing those parts of a book that “read­ers tend to skip.” Oth­er than that, I agree with him.

  • Hugh Thorne says:

    As an author, I agree with your views. They are per­son­al and pre­cious. How­ev­er, we are indi­vid­u­als and we all have a per­son­al AIM (Ambi­tion In Motion). I enjoy writ­ing and using words that have a pen­e­tra­tive impact. And phras­es that have an ambigu­ous touch. So a read­er can see things with an extra pair of eyes, alphabetic(Is) — Inter­est and Imag­i­na­tion. Inter­est is a phe­nom­e­nal word. It has a nat­ur­al desire to GROW! Imag­i­na­tion is infi­nite. Ideas live on the walls of your imag­i­na­tion. The imag­i­na­tion is unique and very pro­duc­tive — neg­a­tive and pos­i­tive. We have got to under­stand the acronymic inter­pre­ta­tion of words. Look at the word SIT: and (Stay In Touch). It is a word that active­ly take you places end­less­ly. If you get some time to read, read my book PIANO: (Poet­ry In
    A New Out­fit) by Hugh Thorne. A new form of writ­ing poet­ry. You may find it chal­leng­ing. Have a won­der­ful day and SMILE: (Sim­ply Makes Indi­vid­u­als Love Each-oth­er). Hope you are smil­ing!

  • Amanda Steel says:

    I’ve sold books from read­ing my pro­logue on the radio, and at a spo­ken word night.

  • Lee Musgrave says:

    To tell a writer, artist, musi­cian, actor or any cre­ative per­son that they should “nev­er” do some­thing is stu­pid. Cre­ative works are not eval­u­at­ed on whether they did or did not do one par­tic­u­lar thing cor­rect­ly. What mat­ter is does the result move you, does it sug­gest things beyond itself? Did it reward you for the time you invest­ed in it? If it does don’t waste your time deter­min­ing if it broke some mean­ing­less rule.

  • Neil Larkins says:

    For­mer agent Nathan Brans­ford says that it’s OK to use “said” fre­quent­ly and cer­tain­ly if there is any con­fu­sion as to who is talk­ing. He’s read far too many man­u­scripts that did­n’t use said enough and had to make the writer add it. He was always told that writ­ing class­es and help sites made the authors take them out. So…

  • Sandy says:

    Well, I’m done for. Accord­ing to the rules, I can’t write “.…,” she asked. Even when she’s ask­ing.

    Maybe we should gath­er up all the writ­ing rules, feed them to Chat­G­PT, and let it write all our nov­els from here on.

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