Rules for Writers

Over the last few years there have been many posts on this subject. Usually, the emphasis is on what to avoid. For example, the aspiring writer should avoid adjectives, adverbs, verbs ending in ‘ing’ and the passive voice. It has also been suggested that question marks should be avoided, so presumably questions should too. Not so helpful when your detective is interrogating a suspect.

In some cases, writers are pulling our legs with their suggestions. For example, Margaret Atwood tells us not to take a pen on a plane because it might leak. So we should take a pencil. Which she then qualifies by saying we should take two in case the first one breaks. Mildly witty, but not so helpful. Stephen King’s advice to writers is well known and easily found online, so let us consider instead what Elmore Leonard has to say on the subject.

His first rule is never to open a book with weather. This may be well advised since the weather, in daily life, is often relegated to small talk. Those with nothing else to say, comment on the wind and rain.

His second rule is to avoid prologues. Some prologues are clearly designed as hooks to lure the reader in, but Leonard would probably say ‘just get on with it.’ There will be exceptions, but this advice is probably good.

His next rule concerns the handling of dialogue. ‘Never use a verb other than said to carry dialogue.’ There is something to be said for this one too if it discourages us from using verbs at one remove. ‘I give up,’ she sighed. Maybe she did sigh but she definitely spoke.

Next, on an associated topic, he advises us never to use an adverb to modify the verb said. ‘I’m cashing in my chips,’ Victor said vehemently. Leonard would strike the ‘vehemently’. You can too if you like. One group of people who have taken this advice to heart, though in the worst possible way, is tennis players who, when interviewed, often state their intention to ‘play aggressive.’ This habit of reducing adverbs to adjectives is never recommended in indirect speech, though it might occasionally happen that one of your less-well-educated characters speaks in this way. Tennis, anyone?

His next rules deal with excessive use of exclamation marks, avoidance of words such as ‘suddenly’, and limiting the use of regional dialects. Then we have his injunction to avoid detailed descriptions of characters, places and things. Why? Well, we don’t want so much detail that the narrative flow grinds to a halt. On the other hand, some writers (not very many) are masters of descriptive writing, so if you are in this select group you might water down this advice.

Referring to the essay in which he expounded these rules Leonard said: “My most important rule is one that sums up the 10: If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” Note that he said ‘sounds’ like writing, not ‘reads’ like writing. This is important for two reasons. The first is that what we write should read well. If you have trouble reading out loud a passage you have written there is more work to be done. If you are aiming for an audio book as well this is even more important.

The second reason why this matters is punctuation. There is a set of conventions governing punctuation of the written word, but I have usually found it helpful to mark up scripts for reading aloud, and as often as not these punctuation points diverge from the convention. For example, my version of Word often tells me that a comma isn’t needed at a certain place. Well, strictly speaking it may not be, but if it helps the talent reading it to the mic it can save several takes.

Another habit your software may have is pointing out that a certain phrase might be more succinct: where you have used five words three would be enough. And this may be the case, but your slighter longer expression might carry an emphasis which the shorter version lacks. And then there is the question of rhythm. The shorter version may lack the rhythm of your original. Ultimately, these are questions of style and are, or should be, under the control of the author rather than software.

How relevant are rules for a writer hoping to be published? While some might cite the old adage that rules are there to be broken, this would not be safe at the outset of a writer’s career. Keeping to reasonable rules is more likely to result in a marketable product. No publisher would consider a book which shows a lack of competence in, and respect for, basic writing skills.

But, as was pointed out at the beginning of this post, rules for writers are forever telling you what you should avoid. What they never tell you is what you should actually do. The truth is, we must all work this out for ourselves.

Elmore’s Rules For Writing

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 flavour of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories Close Range.

8 Avoid detailed descriptions of characters, which Steinbeck covered. 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.

____________________________________________________________________

Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of Writing is published next month by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.