What are Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing?

I love this book. I read it whilst eating my lunch today, then jumped on my computer to start writing this post.

Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing – I first encountered this book in my Introduction to Novel Writing subject earlier this year. My tutor (D. Adelaide) recommended it as THE book to read on becoming a better writer. Being a dutiful student, I scrawled down the title on my subject outline.

Last week, I dug out my subject outline in search of new books to borrow from my local library (frugality ftw!). Having now read it, I’ll go through the 10 rules. This is perhaps suitable for:

  • English Extension 2 students who intend to do a creative writing piece as their major work
  • Aspiring writers of any age
  • Tutors mentoring their students in creative writing

Let’s cut to the chase:

RULE #1: Never open a book with weather.

Honestly, when I first read this rule – I was thinking “What? As in don’t read books or open them in bad weather? Because they might get wet??”

But what Elmore really means is – don’t begin your story with descriptions of the weather. I can agree with this rule. However, I have, guiltily, read a student’s Belonging creative which began with descriptions of rainy, cold weather. It functioned to reflect the mood of the character (dismal and alone).

I don’t think I’ve ever been guilty of breaking this rule – but that’s because I’m terrible with describing weather.

RULE #2: Avoid prologues.

Agreed – personally, I’m a fan of the “jump right into the action” style beginnings. However, I have also been guilty of writing a “prologue” of sorts, which is set in the future or end of my story – and then with the rest of the story explaining how we arrive at the prologue.

For the AOS creative and English Extension 1 creative, you won’t have this problem, because of the brevity of the work. But for English Extension 2 students, consideration for the prologue needs to be carefully made. At most, I feel that prologues should be incredibly short

RULE #3: Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.

Ah, this interesting rule.

Elmore makes a good point – that anything other than “said” is an example of the author’s intrusion into the story (writing too much). Yet, funnily enough, this is the complete opposite of what seems to be taught in high school. You are taught to vary your vocabulary – use “shouted”, “cried”, “whispered” etc. You are taught essentially to embellish your writing. Yet, once out of high school – if you happen to take creative writing courses, you are taught to cut back (be ruthless) your words.

So, there seems to be an entirely contradictory advice between high school (embellish!) and post-high school (cut back!).

Personally, my approach is to avoid ANY verb tags . Your dialogue should carry it’s own tone or voice – show, not tell. For example, it is unnecessary to say:

“Come back here!” she shouted.

The exclamation renders the “shouted” useless.

However, for the sake of high school students, I would advice: disregard RULE #3.

You need only consider RULE #3 if you are writing post-high school, are doing English Extension 2 etc.

RULE #4: Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”.

Whispered carefully. Said loudly. Shouted angrily. This website lists the top 15 most overused adverbs in writing.

My advice goes beyond RULE #4 – just avoid adverbs altogether. Go through your creative piece and circle all the adverbs. Then consider if you really need them. Can you replace them with a more carefully chosen verb?

For example, instead of “ran quickly” – say “sprinted”.

RULE #5: Keep your exclamation points under control.

I would think this RULE quite obvious.

However, I have seen students write creatives NOT just with exclamation marks, but with DOUBLE exclamation marks. For example, “Get away!!”

RULE #6: Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose”.

Agreed! I think the latter is more an example of melodrama or cliche. But the former is an unnecessary adverb.

For example:

Suddenly, she stopped. Where was she?

This can just be easily said with:

She stopped. Where was she?

Use short sentences to convey suddenness.

RULE #7: Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

I can think of 2 examples which I struggled to read.

  1. Huckleberry Finn – I confess I only read up to Chapter 16 then read a study guide for the rest.
  2. Wuthering Heights – I just skipped over any dialogue which Joseph said.

Give your characters an authentic voice, but don’t write as if your secret agenda is to teach the reader a new language or form of slang.

RULE #8: Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

I recall 1 writing exercise wherein you write a profile for your character.

You write their name, birthday, favourite colour, hair colour, shoe size, pets etc.

I hated that exercise. It’s incredibly boring and usually irrelevant to the story. I generally avoid detailed descriptions or at least try to spread it out through the plot and action.

For example, as the character runs through the forest, I could comment on her hair (long, short, tangled) whipping around her face.

RULE #9: Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.

Again, one of those rules which high school will teach you to break. Describe more! Sensory imagery, metaphors, similes – it is all in the detail.

If you are a fantastic describer, by all means – go ahead and show off your skills. But don’t let it impeded the plot.

If you’re like me and NOT a fantastic describer – this rule works well.

RULE #10: Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

Again, be brutal. Both as a student reading your own work, and as a tutor reading your student’s work.

Think about your own reading habits – what do and don’t you read?

When I read a book:

  • I skim over descriptions – sometimes I don’t read it at all.
  • I read dialogue – I will skip from dialogue to dialogue.
  • If a paragraph is over 1 page long, I will put the book down.

What do you think about Elmore’s 10 rules? Do you agree with them?

7 comments for “What are Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing?

  1. December 8, 2010 at 10:14 pm

    I can’t get past the fact that Debra Adelaide was your tutor! Have you read her book? I am in awe!

    • tutortales
      December 9, 2010 at 9:02 pm

      Yeah, she was fantastic! No, I haven’t read any of her books yet and funnily enough, she didn’t really talk about her own work much during the subject. TT

  2. Schoolgirl
    December 9, 2010 at 5:28 pm

    this is great, thankyou so much

    this will certainly help with my extension 1 navigating the global creative writing piece. i aim to break the 90% barrier this time!

  3. December 9, 2010 at 10:05 pm

    You must read ‘The Household Guide to Dying’. I was so moved by this book that I emailed Adelaide to tell her. She wrote me the loveliest reply.

    • tutortales
      December 17, 2010 at 5:10 pm

      Thanks for the recommendation! I’m going to pick it up from my local library this wkd. TT

  4. Taylah
    July 15, 2012 at 8:53 pm

    This has helped me so much! I’m going into my trials tomorrow to write a creative writing and an essay both on belonging. This has helped me go over my practise creative and essay to sort out what I should and shouldn’t have done for both of them. So once again, thank you!

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