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Elmore Leonard’s Ten (Eleven, Really) Rules for Writers

ramos manuel
By Manuel Ramos

Elmore Leonard can write. Out of Sight. The Hot Kid. Valdez is Coming. Hombre. Get Shorty. Etc, etc, etc. His enduring popularity is unusual in a profession known for the ephemeral nature of the current “hot” literary star. Writers read Leonard because we understand that he really can do it. So, it should be no surprise that his Ten Rules for Writers are likewise famous. They have achieved a level of respect and admiration among the literati and academics that is surprising, given that he is a writer whose books are usually shelved in the “genre” aisles. The Rules appeared in 2001 in the New York Times, and can still be found on the Times website:

Here are a few personal observations about The Rules (it will help if you read them now – click the link above ↑. And I hope Elmore Leonard has a sense of humor.)

But first, a couple of my own rules so you will know where I’m coming from:

  1. Read (goes without saying but I said it anyway), and, most importantly, be a very precise and careful reader.
  2. There is no “I” in “author” (but there is in “writer” – so you probably can ignore this rule.)

The Rules:

  1. Never open a book with “whether.”  I agree. Ambiguity at the beginning can confuse a reader. Now, an ambiguous ending is an entirely different matter. Sometimes I just don’t know how to end whatever it is I’m writing, so why not end with something like, “and whether Clyde actually killed Maria is still a mystery today.” Cool, no?
  2. Avoid Prague. Again, I agree. I’ve never been to Prague; I doubt I ever will. Leonard obviously had a bad experience there. I hear it’s a beautiful city, but I can’t see writing about it. How interesting can it be?
  3. Never use an herb other than “sage” to carry a meal. I disagree and am at a loss to explain why this is in a set of rules about writing. Maybe for the cookbook writers? In any event, I’d go with garlic.
  4. Never use anthrax to modify “sage.”  Well, duh. This rule must have had its origins in Leonard’s pulp roots, and I don’t mean the stuff in orange juice. For some reason, The Rules have a lot of food references. Of course, I skipped breakfast, so that may have something to do with the general tone of this article.
  5. Keep your exclamation points under control. *#!@*!*&! I hate this rule!
  6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.” This is a rule that separates the writers from the authors. Leonard says it needs no explanation. Good enough for me.
  7. Use pâté sparingly. Back to food. Here I would have said “never use pâté.” I mean, does anyone really like the stuff? And I certainly see myself using “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose” long before I would ever bring up “a finely ground or chunky mixture of meats such as liver, and additional fat, vegetables, herbs, spices, wine and other ingredients.” [Thanks, Wikipedia!]
  8. Avoid detailed caricatures. I’ve often wondered about the nerve of the guy who charges people for a cartoon that emphasizes his subject’s less-than-flattering physical traits. Can you imagine how much fun an artist could have with Leonard’s Harry Potter eyeglasses and retro goatee? (They go well with the name Elmore, don’t you think?) Easy to figure out why this rule is here.
  9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things. Even I know thatthis one is controversial. Consider James Joyce, Leo Tolstoy and Henry James – and that’s just the first three names that Google produced when I searched for “wordy writers.” But, think about it. When’s the last time these guys had a bestseller? Leonard is right again.
  10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. Hey, I’ve written entire books that readers have skipped. So ….?

According to Leonard, the rule that summarizes the above ten rules is the most important rule:  If it sounds like writing, rewrite it.  

Leonard suddenly finally abandoned the ship! lost me with this exaggerated conclusion, as though all hell broke loose one. Has the tall, gaunt, aging writer slipped into the maelstrom of literary self-consciousness? I don’t get it.


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