The literary world lost a true master of the art when the legendary Elmore Leonard passed away at the age of 87.
Leonard had spent more than fifty years and 45 novels inviting readers into a world of true American grit, where plots rattled forward at a breakneck pace and the dialogue was so astutely observed that it often seemed as if the reader was overhearing it taking place rather than reading it.
Showing a famous disdain for the pretentious and the flowery, Leonard became famous for his no-nonsense approach to writing, never letting the words on the page get in the way of the story he was trying to tell.
True to form, in 2001 Leonard penned a short piece for The New York Times which outlined his ten rules of writing. Aside from being a fascinating resource for writers in the way that any wisdom passed down from a master and an old hand would be, the list also makes for a fascinating insight into the way in which Leonard approached the act of writing.
So here is an abridged version of Elmore Leonard’s Rules of Writing as well as the thoughts of a few other giants of the literary world.
Elmore Leonard’s Rules of Writing
1.) Never open a book with weather.
2.) Avoid prologues.
3.) Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
4.) Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely.
5.) Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
6.) Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
7.) Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
8.) Avoid detailed descriptions of characters
9.) Don’t go into detail describing places and things
10.) Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip
Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Basics of Creative Writing (Found in Bagombo Snuff Box)
1.) Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was not wasted.
2.) Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
3.) Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
4.) Every sentence must do one of two things – reveal character or advance the action.
5.) Start as close to the end as possible.
6.) Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
7.) Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
8.) Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
Zadie Smith’s Rules for Writers
1.) When still a child, make sure you read a lot of books. Spend more time doing this than anything else.
2.) When an adult, try to read your own work as a stranger would read it, or even better, as an enemy would.
3.) Don’t romanticise your “vocation”. You can either write good sentences or you can’t. There is no “writer’s lifestyle”. All that matters is what you leave on the page.
4.) Avoid your weaknesses. But do this without telling yourself that the things you can’t do aren’t worth doing. Don’t mask self-doubt with contempt
5.) Leave a decent space of time between writing something and editing it.
6.) Avoid cliques, gangs, groups. The presence of a crowd won’t make your writing any better than it is.
7.) Work on a computer that is disconnected from the internet.
8.) Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.
9.) Don’t confuse honours with achievement.
10.) Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand – but tell it. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never being satisfied.
Henry Miller’s 11 Commandments of Writing and Daily Creative Routine
1.) Work on one thing at a time until finished.
2.) Start no more new books, add no more new material to ‘Black Spring.’
3.) Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.
4.) Work according to Program and not according to mood. Stop at the appointed time!
5.) When you can’t create you can work.
6.) Cement a little every day, rather than add new fertilizers.
7.) Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it.
8.) Don’t be a draught-horse! Work with pleasure only.
9.) Discard the Program when you feel like it—but go back to it next day. Concentrate. Narrow down. Exclude.
10.) Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.
11.) Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.
Here are some more rules of writing from a whole host of established authors.
These pearls of wisdom are there to be treasured, mulled over and adapted to fit your own process and way of working. If there is one eternal truth to being a writer, it is that there is no one set process that is guaranteed to have results.
The only thing you can do is write. Everything else will fit into place.
What do you guys think of these writing rules? Do you have any other bits of advice from famous authors to share?
Featured image by: zennie62