Elmore Leonard’s Rules for Writing

The great Elmore Leonard passed away earlier this week. He was, and I suppose still is, one of the more prolific and successful and just downright good writers of the last century. If you haven’t read anything of his, STOP READING THIS BLOG AND GO READ ELMORE LEONARD! Now that’s out of the way, let’s get to the subject.

In 2001 Elmore Leonard wrote and essay titled WRITERS ON WRITING; Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle,” which was published in the New York Times. Since then, many people have distilled this essay into either 10 or 11 Rules for Writing. After his death, many other people decided a good way to honor him would be to flood the internet with these rules. Leonard deserves the honor, but I am going to explain why I think this is a bad way to honor him.

First, the rules are only a small part of the full essay. Second, because they are only a small part, the distilled rules are not Leonard’s actual advice to writers. For every rule, he writes a lengthier description, often including caveats and exceptions to the rule. In other words, Elmore Leonard was not advocating that every writer follow these rules or that doing so would automatically make the writing good. He opens the essay with this statement:

“These are rules I’ve picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I’m writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what’s taking place in the story. If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules. Still, you might look them over.”

In other words, these are his rules for himself. This is advice, not rules. And to represent it as something it is not does a disservice to the man who spent time and effort relaying the advice. Now, I could go on and on and on and on and on (well you get the picture), but instead I will simply do this. Below are two links. One will take you to Mashable.com for a distilled version of Leonard’s rules and the other will take you to the full essay. Read both, and decide for yourself which is better writing advice.



Disclaimer: the Mashable article does link to the NY Times article, and its whole presentation makes it one of the better versions of the 10 rules I’ve seen.


3 responses to “Elmore Leonard’s Rules for Writing

  1. I’ve always thought of him as a latter day Twain. Elmore Leonard was just brilliant, his talent for dialogue unmatched. I’ve been a Leonard fan (and acolyte/understudy) for many years. If one wants to learn how to render characters convincingly in their own words, a close study of Leonard’s work will do the trick, for sure

  2. I like this blog entry. Your take on Elmore Leonard’s rules is a good one. Thanks for the links- I’ll look for your “hidden voice” in your work next time…

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