Lists of “Rules for Writing” seem to be about as common as chiggers in Arkansas these days. When I came across a collection of writing rules offered by some of the best-known writers of our time, I was immediately attracted to “Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of writing.” The writer Martin Amis introduced Leonard’s rules, saying, “Bellow and I agreed that for an absolutely reliable and unstinting infusion of narrative pleasure in a prose miraculously purged of all false qualities, there was no one quite like Elmore Leonard.”
You might not like Leonard’s hard boiled fiction, but it’s hard to argue with the assertion that he is a stylistic purist, that his writing has, in fact, been purged of all false qualities.
So here are my two favorites of Leonard’s 10 rules of writing, and my responses:
- Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
This one is pure gold. Said and only said, is a good mantra for any writer. You might get away with an occasional yelled or whispered to cover the extremes. Some people insist on using the verb asked when attributing a question, but the verb asked seems redundant to me. The spoken passage ends with a question mark, doesn’t it? All the other verbs of attribution people try to conjure up (jabbered, moaned, squawked, squealed, huffed, etc.) make the character seem like an animal in a zoo. What they attempt to communicate should be communicated by effective narrative context. They tend to appear most commonly in poorly written genre fiction. Well-written genre fiction avoids them in the same way literary fiction does.
2. Never use an adverb to modify the verb said.
Another pure gold piece of advice. Using an adverb (especially any –ly adverb, such as fondly, soothingly, angrily, etc.) is simply cheating on the first rule given above, and, from a literal point of view, is usually either redundant or inaccurate. An example: “Bullshit!” he said emphatically. (The word emphatically is redundant and should be insulting to an intelligent reader.)
So you might want to carefully consider Leonard’s advice here. His simple rules can help any writer develop “a prose miraculously purged of all false qualities.”