Adapted for the Information Age
Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing have held a high place among the innumerable “advice for writers” lists. A testimony to its influence, attendees at Leonard’s funeral were given, in addition to the order of service, a card with a list of his 10 Rules for Writing.
While they are derived from the experience of writing book length fiction, there’s insight here for content creation of any kind. All the marketing, blogging, pitching and performing we do, after all, are just various forms of storytelling. The medium is not the message.
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.
Showing rather than telling is important in an age literally obsessed with the visual. You don’t have to pack everything into an animated GIF, but it does help to think about how your writing might help or hinder your reader’s capacity for visualizing the story you’re telling.
1. Never open a book with weather.
People connect most naturally with people, not environment. It might be necessary on occasion to describe or explain, but the most engaging content will focus on personal connection and human experience, allowing the reader room to use their imagination and visualize the world you’re building for them.
2. Avoid prologues.
Get to the point, and get their quickly. Backstory has its place, but if you’re writing about the story you’re not telling it. If it’s absolutely necessary to provide some “by way of introduction” note, hurry up. Imagine you’re in a theater. People have come to see your movie or your play. How much can you get away with before people start yelling and throwing things?
3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
Leonard explains this one simply: “The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in.” Beware of imposing yourself on the story. Try to let the character, product, or whatever it is, speak for itself.
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…
A writing professor of mine used to say that everyone carries a bag of words around with them, and as they move around adjectives creep to the surface. You have to learn go ignore them; use them sparingly. Same goes for adverbs.
5. Keep your exclamation points under control.
Used carelessly, exclamation points turn into yelling or unwarranted hype. Make sure it helps the reader in some way. Don’t just use it to convey your own emotion.
On a more contemporary note, keep your emoticons under control as well. Better yet, don’t use them at all unless you’re writing an email or a text message.
6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
Of this one Leonard says, “I have noticed that writers who use “suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.”
Be precise about what’s going on in your narrative. If you’re tempted to wrap up an entire scene with a dramatic phrase, you probably have a lot more work to do on it. Take a break. Slow down. Come back to it.
7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
The same goes for jargon. If you have to use technical terms you don’t understand your subject matter well enough to be writing about it for the public. You’ll be insufferable as a term paper.
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
Again, it’s better to show rather than tell. Show enough to set the stage, but don’t let your story turn into an observational narrative on something inside the story. You’ll make your reader feel uncomfortable, like you’re peering over their shoulder, afraid they might miss some profound implication.
If you’ve read the Hemingway story Leonard mentions, this is a perfect example:
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, and yet we see the couple and know them by their tones of voice, with not one adverb in sight.
9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
A story line is like a train. If you slow down too much, or stop to have a look at something along the way, it takes a long time to get going again. Not all of your readers will be there to hear you call them back on board.
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
It almost sounds flippant, but taking on the reader’s perspective can be an eye opener. Consider how a busy, overworked, attention strained reader is going to react to what you’ve written. Read it out loud. Imagine she’s sitting there in the chair across the table from you, on the park bench in front of you, or next to you on the subway. Imagine her listening to you. What does the expression on her face tell you?
In other words, Leonard says, “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”