Saturday, September 7, 2013

Elmore Leonard's Ten Rules of Writing

One of my guilty pleasures is reading a fair amount of mystery/crime/suspense fiction. As someone who edits, writes, and explains for a living, I'm intrigued by how the top writers in this form manage to keep me turning pages and paying close attention, chapter after chapter. After all, the top authors (with arguably a tiny handful of exceptions over the decades) not great novelists. The top authors are working with pretty much the same basic plotlines as other writers in this form. But at least to me, their prose has a propulsive force.

Elmore Leonard, one of the masters of this form, died in late August. (I was on vacation that week, and only just heard the news.) Here are his 10 rules for writing as he laid them out--with some additional explanation and examples for each rule--in a June 2001 article in the New York Times. Most of the rules are about his genre, and thus not directly relevant to academic writing, but on the philosophy that most academics should take advice about their writing from anywhere they can get it, here's the list.  

Elmore Leonard's Ten Rules of Writing

1. Never open a book with 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. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
6. Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose."
7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
9. Don't go into great detail describing places and things.
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.
If it sounds like writing, I rewrite.

For academics, I'd suggest particular attention to rule #2, about avoiding prologues, and rule #10, about leaving out the part that readers tend to skip. I see a lot of early drafts where the first paragraph, or first two or three paragraphs, is just throat-clearing. And academic prose is full of self-indulgence passages that were apparently important to the author, but which matter little or at all to readers.