Some time ago I stumbled upon an article featuring many writers and their ten rules of writing, inspired by Elmore Leonard’s rules. It changed my world back then. The tips they gave opened my eyes to things I didn’t even know, even though they were so basic. But I think that’s what life is about, to always learn more.
I kept this article for myself, and I always reread it whenever I feel I lost track of myself.
In 2001, Elmore wrote a piece for The New York Times on his rules to writing. These rules were eventually adapted into a book (Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing). According to him, this list helped him along the way to remain invisible when writing a book, to help him show rather than tell what’s happening in the story (something which I found later is harder to do than it looks).
The Ten Rules of Writing: Using adverbs is a mortal sin
1 Never open a book with weather
If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways than an Eskimo to describe ice and snow in his book Arctic Dreams, you can do all the weather reporting you want.
2 Avoid prologues
They can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in non-fiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want. There is a prologue in John Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday, but it’s OK because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: “I like a lot of talk in a book and I don’t like to have nobody tell me what the guy that’s talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks.”
3 Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue
The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But “said” is far less intrusive than “grumbled”, “gasped”, “cautioned”, “lied”. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated” and had to stop reading and go to the dictionary.
4 Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…
he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances “full of rape and adverbs”.
5 Keep your exclamation points under control
You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.
6 Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose”
This rule doesn’t require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use “suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.
7 Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly
Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apostrophes, you won’t be able to stop. Notice the way Annie Proulx captures the flavor of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories Close Range.
8 Avoid detailed descriptions of characters
In Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”, what do the “American and the girl with him” look like? “She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.” That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story.
9 Don’t go into great detail describing places and things
Unless you’re Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language. You don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.
10 Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip
Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them.
My most important rule is one that sums up the 10: if it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.
Later on, when this was made into a book, The Guardian asked authors for their personal dos and don’ts. You can read the full article 10 rules for writing fiction here.
Also, if you don’t know how to organize your ideas, check out this blog post:
Five ways to organize your ideas effectively.
Author: Lory Fernandes
Lory Fernandes is from Salvador, Brazil, although she suspects she was born in the wrong city. Maybe in the wrong planet. She has a degree in Graphic Design, took some years of drawing classes and is pursuing her graduation in Animation. She is an aspiring illustrator and dreams of becoming a fantasy writer.