February 06, 2012


Raymond Cothern

New to the blog and like what I've read. Studied with Walker Percy in a novel writing class at LSU and one of the best pieces of advice (really the same as Eisenberg said) was that writers make their own rules. That's the only rule a good writer needs.


Nicely paraphrased: "you can do anything you want, provided you can do it".


Writers can be educated by almost anything they're willing to be smashed by.

But not by lists.


no Anna Karenina (remember those exquisitely boring sections on agronomy?)

This is just silly. Tolstoy could have written Anna Karenina without the sections on agronomy. It would be essentially the same book since everyone skips those sections anyway.

Susan McCallum-Smith

I had just finished Get Shorty and was about to write about it when I found your plea against the 10 Rules. I understand what you mean, and here's part of what I eventually wrote: "I can't help feeling that when Leonard attempted to articulate the reason behind his success in 10 Rules, he missed the mark entirely; his success has nothing to do with him rarely using an adverb, or cutting out all the parts that, he says, readers skip, it's a direct consequence of his voice and tone, and voice and tone are unique to each individual writer, you are born with them, they cannot be 'made' or 'learned,' or parsed into rules - they are each writer's intrinsic 'disease', of which our diction, dialect, pacing, and grammar are mere symptoms. Readers either like a writer's voice or they don't, it is the most subjective of responses to a book, and dangerous to use as a basis of literary criticism. Leonard describing the weather in detail would be as weird to me as William Trevor or John Banville failing to do so."


Thanks for this! I was getting sick of seeing Leonard's rules, too.

Todd Zuniga

I think these lists are for mini-blips of inspiration, and useful if used as such.

In fact, I like Leonard's rule, because to me it means: stare down a sentence until it's perfect. Until it is what you intended to say in the voice you're trying to say it in.

The writing advice list that can fairly exist, and make an impact, is one word long: Write.

Michael Weil

Thank you for making a case against rule like this. It seems lists of rules for writing are only valuable to the person who makes them.

I also wanted to mention that Leonard claimed in an interview on NPR's Talk of the Nation that he originally came out with this list as a sort of joke. Perhaps it's best for everyone to see them the same way.

marly youmans

Serendipity is always playing tricks--just this morning I wrote a rather sweeping bit of writing advice on my blog, and here I find the 10 Rules popping up again. But the thing is that a sweeping kind of rule sends people off to write and learn from the act of writing. And that tends to be bad for business, at least the teaching business. But then of course one can do a counter-post to justify why teaching is valid and how it relates to rules or no rules. And so on. It all seems like life on the Moebius band after a while, doesn't it?

I hadn't read the Patterson review. It was certainly a shocker. But you have lovely reviews in other places...


Writing sounds like writing. There can be no denying. Rewriting it is to make it better.Though you never know what you are doing when you write. It is others who know if it is good.


If nothing else, these lists are good for a laugh, though even the laughs get repetitive after awhile.

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  • The Elegant Variation is "Fowler’s (1926, 1965) term for the inept writer’s overstrained efforts at freshness or vividness of expression. Prose guilty of elegant variation calls attention to itself and doesn’t permit its ideas to seem naturally clear. It typically seeks fancy new words for familiar things, and it scrambles for synonyms in order to avoid at all costs repeating a word, even though repetition might be the natural, normal thing to do: The audience had a certain bovine placidity, instead of The audience was as placid as cows. Elegant variation is often the rock, and a stereotype, a cliché, or a tired metaphor the hard place between which inexperienced or foolish writers come to grief. The familiar middle ground in treating these homely topics is almost always the safest. In untrained or unrestrained hands, a thesaurus can be dangerous."


  • The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald


    Penelope Fitzgerald's second novel is the tale of Florence Green, a widow who seeks, in the late 1950s, to bring a bookstore to an isolated British town, encountering all manner of obstacles, including incompetent builders, vindictive gentry, small minded bankers, an irritable poltergeist, but, above all, a town that might not, in fact, want a bookshop. Fitzgerald's prose is spare but evocative – there's no wasted effort and her work reminds one of Hemingway's dictum that every word should fight for its right to be on the page. Florence is an engaging creation, stubbornly committed to her plan even as uncertainty regarding the wisdom of the enterprise gnaws at her. But The Bookshop concerns itself, finally, with the astonishing vindictiveness of which provincials are capable, and, as so much English fiction must, it grapples with the inevitabilities of class. It's a dense marvel at 123 pages, a book you won't want to – or be able to – rush through.
  • The Rider by Tim Krabbe


    Tim Krabbé's superb 1978 memoir-cum-novel is the single best book we've read about cycling, a book that will come closer to bringing you inside a grueling road race than anything else out there. A kilometer-by-kilometer look at just what is required to endure some of the most grueling terrain in the world, Krabbé explains the tactics, the choices and – above all – the grinding, endless, excruciating pain that every cyclist faces and makes it heart-pounding rather than expository or tedious. No writer has better captured both the agony and the determination to ride through the agony. He's an elegant stylist (ably served by Sam Garrett's fine translation) and The Rider manages to be that rarest hybrid – an authentic, accurate book about cycling that's a pleasure to read. "Non-racers," he writes. "The emptiness of those lives shocks me."