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.

by | Permalink | Comments (20) |

Support Open Culture

We’re hoping to rely on our loyal readers rather than erratic ads. To support Open Culture’s educational mission, please consider making a donation. We accept PayPal, Venmo (@openculture), Patreon and Crypto! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (20)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • 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.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.