February 19, 2010



I so agree with this. New writers get so bogged down with 'rules' in their heads while attempting to put down words in just the right way, they indeed forget to write. Passion comes when we're not thinking about the mechanics.


Hmmm. I've never encountered this list of rules before. It's very enlightening, because now I know the source of a lot of style fascism I've heard coming out of writing workshops. Particularly #3, only use the verb "said" to report speech. If I've heard that chestnut once, I've heard it a million times.

Here the rules I can think that might help other writers out:

1. You should be reading other writers all the time, partiucularly those who style and concerns are vastly different from your own. This will give you an enlarged understanding of what is possible in your own work.

2. You don't have to explain everything. You can in fact leave shit out. Just be sure you're making that decision wisely.

3. Understand the difference between plot and story, and don't worry too much about plot until you really understand your story.

4. You don't have to write every day, and you don't have to write a certain number of lines/hours a day. Only hacks write this way.

5. Extreme emotionality must, ultimately, be justified in terms of the story. It can be a mystery at the beginning, but you have to ground those extremes in the logic of your story.

6. Don't begin with all your characters screaming at each other, or engaged in other high forms of emotion, because then you have no where to go when you want to amp up the emotional energy of your narrative. Let it buld.

7. Don't write about a life experienc of your own that you think are profound (I discovered I was adopted; My father murdered my mother; I'm a hermaphrodite; I was a child soldier in Sierra Leone; etc.) unless you know how to make those experiences profound to those who've never had them. Don't just coast on your own emotional reactions - make them compelling for others.

8. You're not writing a screenplay. So the minute some failed screenwriter tells you, "Show, don't tell," punch them in the face. The novel is all about telling. That's the talent you have to master, not one that is inimical to your success as a writer.

9. It's OK to have an unsympathetic main character or narrator. They don't have to become better at the end; they don't have to be redeemed.

10. None of your characters needs to be redeemed.

Good luck people.

Rob Crompton

Rules are best treated as recommendations. Think about it. Try it and see whether it helps. But above all, if you are going to treat a rule as inviolable, be very sure you understand it. I find it amusing how often wannabe writers insist upon not using the passave but don't actually know what passive is. I recently came across one who had written, "Never use 'was' because it's passive." Oh dear. Makes me want to add rule number umpteen: take up stamp collecting instead.


In Francine Prose's "Reading Like A Writer," she specifically mentions that all rules have at one point been broken by a master. Chekhov did so again and again.

Susan K. Perry

All advice is suspect. That's how I began my blog post on bad writing advice ("11 Types of Bad Writing Advice"), which you might find entertaining, at least. http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/creating-in-flow/200906/11-types-bad-writing-advice

Chabon McSafran-Foer

Leonard wrote those rules with his tongue firmly in his cheek. What he really meant was "here are 10 rules that I personally follow when I write my books." He didn't mean for them to become an instructional manual, for god's sake. It was just a fun little thing for Leonard fans, framed in a faux pompous tone, and it offers some insight into his process and attitude. If people besides Leonard are dumb enough to preach his list as gospel, that's their problem. Not his.

Also readers who don't think that Leonard loves plenty of books that break his "rules," are wrong. He has talked in interviews about his love for works that are far outside of the American crime fiction genre (and by the way, the TLS sounds dangerously snobby about said genre in the above quote).

Calling the Leonard list "unhinged dipshitery" strikes me as humorless and nasty.


Hey "Chabon," why is it the comment namecallers who always hide behind fake names and phony emails? Just curious. At least I sign my real name to anything I say.

That said, here's Leonard's more enhanced explication of his list. You read it and tell me he's being tongue in cheek; seems pretty straightforward to these humorless eyes:



From the referenced article:

"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. If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules. "

Nothing tongue in cheek about that. Plus the hateful "Show, don't tell" rule. The sad thing is that Leonard doesn't seem to realize that those who like whose work like it because he is not invisible in it. In fact, he is gloriously visible.

Chabon McSafran-Foer

I'm sorry, I genuinely didn't intend my comment to be taken as namecalling. And I don't attach my real name or use a real email when I comment on blogs just because, like many people, I fear the internet. I guess that's why. I don't think it's out of not really believing in what I'm saying.

Perhaps I am reading tongue-in-cheekness into the list in question because I think that a lot of what Leonard does has a certain kind of humor behind it, a little bit of a troublemaker thing. I think he gets a kick out of being provocative. Now, do I think that he means those rules? Yes. But do I also think that he enjoys a great deal of writing by others who don't give a damn about his rules? Yes to that as well! I see his list, and all the other lists at that link, as great points of departure for talking about writing.

I do think that he has earned a little more respect than "dipshitery." But, again, that's just an opinion. I say all of this simply in the spirit of discussion, and I apologize if it came off as trolling. I hate trolls as much as the next reader of blogs.


CMcSF - I do appreciate the clarification and the spirit behind it. Thanks for that. You're clearly no troll, whatever mild disagreement we may have. And you're certainly right in that "dipshitery" is scarcely a term of deep, critical engagement. It's just an expression of my irritation at what I still do think is a pretty idiotic list; and I'm not always known for being temperate. But thanks for weighing back in, and I do hope you keep reading.


Read, read, read. Then write what you want, however you want, do it enormously well, do it again.


I don't think that young writers are distracted/bound by "rules". Quite the contrary. Anyone who writes begins by trying to imitate fiction they admire. Rules come into their thinking when they have to ask themselves why they've failed at that. Which I think is a good heuristic process. Used in the best way, rules can help young writers realize they are trying to imitate a style/author that is unsuited to their own actual talents and preoccupations. In this use, they can be quite liberating.

tod goldberg

Anyone who has read student work filled with "he ejaculated furiously" and "she pondered relentlessly" I think can agree that "said" does just fine, really.


I'm pretty furious every time I ejaculate, actually.


It's hard to see how "ejaculating' can be followed by "said", unless we're assuming a highly unsavory situation.

I ejaculated. I mean, I said.

Hank R

The Leonard rules can be helpful as an editing guideline for novice writers. And I don't think Leonard intended this for so-called literary fiction either. I wonder if part of the vigorous dismissal of the list originates from the fact that its author happens to write genre fiction instead of literary, or "noble", or the "one true" fiction. And I don't mean to be a troll, I just don't understand the hate.


Hank -

Good point. I love genre fiction, and consider it generally better than current literary fiction. And I still find these rules silly and too restrictive. Can you imagine if H. P. Lovecraft had followed them?

Hank R

Oh sure - and I don't agree with all the rules either, or instruction manuals for writing in general. But I do think they can give new, "uneducated" writers some editing direction, or at least start to think about whether "shouted angrily" is really better than "said." And it seems to me like the hatred in the post was directed at the writer rather than the content.

Franzen, for example, is infinitely more "talented" (in my opinion) than Leonard, but his rules are dripping with the self-righteous pretentiousness that weighs down his work, and are utterly useless. Leonard's rules have at least a fleeting utility to me.


Actually, simply, "shouted" is superior to both "shouted angrily" and "said". "Said" is in fact the worst option here, because it suppresses information about the emotional state of the speaker.

Another reason why the "said" rule is stupid.

Hank R

Unless the dialogue preceeding the tag is something like "Get the hell out of here!", in which case the emotional state of the speaker is implied. Maybe shouted isn't the best example - exclaimed angrily? - but the fundamental point is valid, I think.

Agree to disagree.


You can't establish the emotional state of all speakers in a dialogue prior to the beginning of that discussion, for the simple reason that dramatic effect in dialogue is achieved by having the emotional states of the speakers change in reaction to what they're hearing from the others. Because of this, it's often necessary to use a verb other than the drab, neutral "said" to indicate this. "She whined" is a very different statement from "she said". Yet if you banish it, you lose the ability to make that distinction. And fiction is all about making fine distinctions.

"Said" is in fact so empty and meaningless, I think it's usually best just to omit it entirely. The quotation marks are enough to tell the reader that people are saiding.

Hank R

I use "said" (or other dialogue tags)primarily when the identification of the speaker is necessary for clarity (e.g. three-way conversations). It is empty and meaningless, so it doesn't distract from the flow of the dialogue.

Anyway this is drifting into the realm of stylistic preference - a good discussion but one that could go on forever. Say what you want about Leonard's list, but it has sparked some reasonable debate!


On a side note, I'm curious if your use of Roderick Hudson was arbitrary or if you are currently reading it. That book has a special place in my heart because of this description that cut very close to the bone:

"It often seemed to Mallet that he wholly lacked the prime requisite of a graceful flâneur—the simple, sensuous, confident relish of pleasure. He had frequent fits of extreme melancholy, in which he declared that he was neither fish nor flesh nor good red herring. He was neither an irresponsibly contemplative nature nor a sturdily practical one, and he was forever looking in vain for the uses of the things that please and the charm of the things that sustain. He was an awkward mixture of strong moral impulse and restless aesthetic curiosity, and yet he would have made a most ineffective reformer and a very indifferent artist. It seemed to him that the glow of happiness must be found either in action, of some immensely solid kind, on behalf of an idea, or in producing a masterpiece in one of the arts. Oftenest, perhaps, he wished he were a vigorous young man of genius, without a penny. As it was, he could only buy pictures, and not paint them; and in the way of action, he had to content himself in making a rule to render scrupulous moral justice to handsome examples of it in others."


There is only one rule for writing in my opinion: do it!

All other rules are rules for publishing and earning a living as a writer, which is something else completely.

The core of a writer is his or her writing and the best way to learn how to write is to just do it. There are no short cuts: just plain hard graft.

So called writing rules are an anathema to writers. Rules suffocate, rules limit freedom, rules murder creativity and rules preclude a distinctive style from developing.

My advice: free your brain and just write.


Isn't Leonard's introduction to his rules an invitation to break them whenever it works? How do you read this statement?:

"If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules."

He offers up these rules as a way to help the writer, when she so desires, to remain invisible. It is a method that he employs and he is sharing it. It doesn't strike me as preachy. "These are rules that help ME...", he writes.

It seems unfair to suggest that Leonard has tried to codify writing. Perhaps your anger should be directed toward those who pass these off as Rules, with a capital R, and misrepresent the tone and the spirit of the piece.

Personally, I find Leonard's tips more helpful than pithy truisms such as "Be without fear." But that is just me. As seems to be the consensus here, do what works for you. Maybe we should add, don't denigrate what works for others.

Jack Pendarvis

What Tod Goldberg said! I was about to compose a witty comment featuring "'Merciful heavens!' the countess ejaculated." But Mr. Goldberg beat me to it. In student work, I find that "thundered" and "croaked" are used as little crutches when the preceding dialogue can't pull its fair share of the weight. And many of my students are not quite as polished as Henry James for some reason, so it turns out to be a pretty helpful rule. I go with Leonard and Goldberg on that one. But I must admit that I have nothing cute or snotty to say about Elmore Leonard, who is a respectable old gentleman and my better in every way.

Vanessa W.

I'm sure you realize this, but Elmore Leonard's list of rules was never meant by him to be a list of prescriptive rules for all fiction writers, or a Litmus test to determine whether a particular literary work has been written well or poorly. He described them this way:

"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. If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules."

In other words, some people, perhaps people like Dickens, Balzac, and Henry James, have a facility for language and imagery, and a pleasing literary voice, and therefore by all means should do things like use patois, describe places in detail, etc.

So, I'm not sure there's much you've said here that Leonard would disagree with. Except, perhaps, that his remarks are just so much "unhinged dipshitery."

The offending article by Elmore Leonard is online here: http://www.nytimes.com/2001/07/16/arts/writers-writing-easy-adverbs-exclamation-points-especially-hooptedoodle.html


Vanessa, it's interesting you have to radically misinterpret Leonard in order to save him. When Leonard says "And if you love the sound of your own voice," he doesn't mean, "If you have a pleasing (to others) literary voice", which is your paraphrase. He's saying, "If you'd rather wallow in your own narcissism, by all means don't follow my rules." Quite a different reading.

It's clear from his presentation that Leonard thinks writing his way is superior to writing in a different way. That being invisible is superior to being in love with the sound of your own voice. That "showing" is superior to "telling". Leonard is absolutely making a value judgment here. He's not just saying, "Hey, here's what works for me, but if you do exactly the opposite you can still be a great writer."

Quite the opposite.

Hank R

So then, almighty interpeter of the written word, how should we interpret his endorsement of Steinbeck's "hooptedoodle?" By "I read every word" did he really mean "I didn't read any of it, because my style of writing is superior to all others"? We get it, you disagree with Leonard's rules. Don't pretend to know his precise motivations with every word he wrote just to justify your opinion.

Oh and by self-righteously ridiculing opposing viewpoints, you come off as a condescending, petty, pedantic prick, and nobody takes what you say seriously.

Sorry TEV, but as long as this guy feels the need to post pretentious, masturbatory comments after every single post (though we're all impressed with the way he interjected French into a post about Sam Lipsyte), I think I'll get my lit fix elsewhere. There's no room for intelligent debate here when Niall feels the need to dominate every conversation and crush opposing viewpoints.


I'm not sure where you're finding the "ridicule" in my response. I simply pointed out that "loving the sound of your own voice" is quite different from "having a voice pleasing to others," and I don't know why you think the latter is as accurate paraphrase of the former. "To love the sound of your own voice" is a stereotyped expression in English intended to refer to boorish, narcissistic people whose voice are precisely not pleasing to others.

As for Hooptedoodle, here's Steinbeck's own definition of it:

“Sometimes I want a book to break loose with a bunch of hooptedoodle. The guy’s writing it, give him a chance to do a little hooptedoodle. Spin up some pretty words maybe, or sing a little song with language. That’s nice. But I wish it was set aside so I don’t have to read it. I don’t want hooptedoodle to get mixed up in the story. So if the guy that’s writing it wants hooptedoodle, he ought to put it right at first. Then I can skip if I want, or maybe go back to it after I know how the story came out.”

In other words, it's meant to lie outside the story, and not be a real part of it, precisely because it is so linguistically ornate and "telling" rather than "showing". As such, it supports Leonard's aesthetic rather than being an exception to it.


Rules, like toilet paper, are best dispensed when needed.

Jane Suskind

I think there is a new fiction genre: lists writing, kind of styling exercise. Rules generate mannerism, in any case. And I agree with Nan.

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