On Writing

Some Advice on Writing Advice: Elmore Leonard’s Rules

Elmore Leonard was one of the greats. I own and love Out of SightKillshot, Get Shorty, Mr. MajestykValdez is Coming and a few more. He’s one of the writers I wish I could write like, but my propensity for wordiness often precludes it. He is still an inspiration and a titan.

He has a list of “10 Rules for Good Writing” that you can find pretty easily online. Like other writing advice lists, it is considered fairly unassailable by some. Understandably, at least on the surface. Advice from a legend is priceless. Strangely, though, his rules do not align with the content his ten favorite books. I haven’t read every single one of the books on that second list, but the ones I have read tell me that several of his favorite books–per his official website–contain things that flout the “rules.”

For a quick and easy example from one of the most famous books on his favorites list, the very first page For Whom the Bell Tolls breaks the “rule” against using a verb other than said in its very first line of dialogue. A few sentences later it breaks the rule against using “suddenly.” Twice. All of this is on page 1 of a book written by Hemingway, the American godfather of spare prose.

How could this be? How could many (and perhaps all) of his favorite books break his rules of “good writing?”

Well, here’s the thing… that rules list isn’t really his, at least not completely. It’s missing a lot of content and context from its original version. For example, the link above is missing the following:

“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.

In other words, these are his personal rules for himself, not ironclad laws he thinks every writer should adhere to.

This list has been cribbed from an essay that is considerably longer, containing context, nuance, and no shortage of exceptions. And again, it had the caveat at the beginning that if this didn’t fit your style, you could ignore the rules. It closes with him saying he read every word of a Steinbeck story that disregards his rules.

Because I’m a fan of ridiculous analogies, here’s a ridiculous analogy: imagine you found a list of workout tips from a fitness expert, without knowing that this list was a) actually taken from a much longer article that explained things instead of just firing off quick “tricks,” b) was written by a powerlifter, and c) was written specifically as a beginner’s guide to becoming a powerlifter. Oh and d) the writer readily acknowledged in the original article that powerlifting isn’t the only type of fitness and that if your fitness goals differ from his area of expertise, you’re welcome to ignore his list.

If you didn’t actually know about the original article, you might end up thinking that significantly bulking up and building up your 1-rep max in the squat, bench press, and deadlift is the only path to getting in shape. Which would, of course, be absurd, and even the author of the article would tell you that.

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This is why I do not even consider the list to be Leonard’s. It’s so reductive it essentially isn’t what he wrote anymore.

So at this point it should be obvious that I don’t write this to impugn Mr. Leonard’s article and personal rules. It should go without saying–or repetition in this case–but advice from a legend is priceless. Nonetheless, I write this to assail the concept of such reductive reproductions of actual writing advice from a legend, particularly as quick and easy tips that can replace the time it takes to read a complete essay on the subject of writing, much less several such essays, much less several novels.

So my advice, for whatever it’s worth and as it relates to this specific subject, is pretty simple:

  • Read the original article, not the abbreviated list.
  • Read Leonard’s work.
  • Read his favorite books.
  • Develop your style and try to write well.
  • In case you missed it, skip abbreviated lists.