No room for thick prose: Elmore Leonard's 10 rules of writing
Alongside thrillers like Get Shorty, the novelist leaves a classic handbook, writes Nigel Horne
THE DEATH of Elmore Leonard at 87 robs us of a great beast in the literary jungle. Any lover of 20th Century American thrillers will have Get Shorty, Hombre and Rum Punch on their shelves. But the book of his I most want to turn to on hearing the news is a sweet little volume called Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing. It’s there between the Bible and the Shorter Oxford.
The majority of the ten rules apply mainly to novelists.
Never open a book with weather - “It was a dark, stormy September night when...” Don’t do it. Avoid prologues – who reads them? And my favourite: Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. Think of what you skip when you read a novel, wrote Leonard - “thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them”.
But a number of his rules apply equally to journalists. Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue. Don’t finish a quote, in other words, with he or she ‘grumbled’, or ‘exclaimed’ or ‘stated’ or ‘avered’. They get in the way, trip you up. Said Leonard: “I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with ‘she asseverated’ and had to stop reading and go to the dictionary.”
Never use an adverb to modify the verb ‘said’. Don’t write ‘he said angrily’, ‘jokingly’ or ‘unhappily’. Like Mark Twain before him, Leonard eschewed (would he use that word?) adverbs. “To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin,” said Leonard. “The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange.”
Never use the words ‘suddenly’ or ‘all hell broke loose’. This rule requires no explanation, said Leonard. “I have noticed that writers who use ‘suddenly’ tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points” (another no-no, in Leonard’s view, unless you’re Tom Wolfe).
Elmore Leonard’s number one rule – one that should be bashed out in 72pt garamond bold and used as a screensaver by all journalists – I save until last.
Mark Twain concluded his own list of rules a century earlier with: “Employ a simple and straightforward style.”
Leonard’s is better: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”
Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules of Writing was published in the UK in 2010 by Weidenfeld & Nicolson ·