Rules of Writing: Elmore Leonard

elmore-leonard-authorElmore Leonard, best known for countless novels and their film adaptations, such as Get Shorty, Jackie Brown and Out of Sight, was known for this gritty writing style and strong dialogues.

Here are a few of his gems of advice for writers (with my comments in parentheses):

  • “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”
  • “Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.” (Think: thick paragraphs of prose; boring lists; role calls that seem to be there more to remind the writer who’s in the scene than to entertain the reader.)
  • “If proper (grammar) usage gets in the way, it may have to go.  I can’t allow what we learned  in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative.” (This advice should follow the adage, however:  First learn the rules; then you’ll know how and when you can break them.)
  • “Never open a book with weather.  There are exceptions.  If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways to describe snow and ice  than an Eskimo, you can do all the weather reporting you want.”
  • “I never see my bad guys as simply bad.  They want pretty much what you and I want:  They want to be happy.”
  • “At the time I begin writing a novel, the last thing I want to do is follow a plot outline.  To know too much at the start takes the pleasure out of discovering what the book is about.”
  • “It doesn’t have to make sense, it just has to sound like it does.”


Filed under Lists, Nuts & Bolts, Plot Thots & Profiles, Quotes

19 responses to “Rules of Writing: Elmore Leonard

  1. connie r white

    Great recommendations. I will keep this for future reference.

  2. “To know too much at the start takes the pleasure out of discovering what the book is about.”
    I’ve never read Elmore Leonard, but he sounds like my kind of writer. I want to enjoy my story as much as anyone.

  3. Thanks! Keep writing! 🙂

  4. I agree! My first draft is always outline-free, just to see where it leads me, and enjoy the ride!

  5. I enjoyed reading Leonard’s advice to writers. I especially liked the last one, ““It doesn’t have to make sense, it just has to sound like it does.”

  6. Absolutely! Reader’s POV comes during the re-writes, re-structuring, and editing process.

  7. Thank you! And I think that’s the most important advice of all. 😉

  8. I mainly think about the character POV; I am aware of who the audience will be, but I allow them to be a fly on the wall, or step into the main role (depending on the choice of voice – 1st, 2nd or 3rd person).

  9. That’s very true, but what I meant was that the first draft is for me only. The second I try to write from the reader’s point of view – i.e. what does the reader need to know at this point in the story. Sometimes it may be a lot, and other times it may just be hint because the big reveal comes later. 🙂

  10. I understand; I think I tend to combine the first and second approaches into one draft; I write for me, but also read it aloud to hear any “holes”(i.e. things the reader might need to know, but I as the writer have “assumed”).
    However we approach it, the main thing is that it works for us, and eventually for the reader, and that we keep writing! 🙂

  11. lol – yes! And I do the reading out loud bit too, especially when I’m having trouble with a section.

  12. It’s the best way, though it makes us look crazy to the rest of the family, right? 😉

  13. -face palm- Oh god yes. And the dog…she’s my worst critic.

  14. Amen to the comment on #3. When I deliberately break a rule, I think I know WHY it makes sense to break it in this particular case.

  15. Exactly. I’ve seen cases where people use that advice to be lazy when it comes to mastering grammar, punctuation, syntax and tenses, and laziness in writing will NEVER make it stand out (in a positive way, at least)!

  16. Sweet. This one I find the most topical:

    “I never see my bad guys as simply bad. They want pretty much what you and I want: They want to be happy.”

  17. I agree – simple bad guys are too predictable, or boring, or both… never a good sign for any character!

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