As I continue with my dogged determination to improve my writing life this year, I came across an article I saved. Elmore Leonard, author of such classics as Get Shorty, offered 10 rules of good writing in the New York Times Writers on Writing series last year. Here they are in brief:
1. Never open a book with weather.
2. Avoid prologues.
3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely.
5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
This article is so worth reading if you can find it. The NYT archives these things, but wants about 3 bucks to access it. If you have access to Lexis Nexis or another academic database, you can probably get it for free.
I think my personal favorite is number 10. Do you find yourself skipping passages in a book? Why? I tend to skim long paragraphs of narrative, find where the next patch of dialogue is, and then reassured it’s coming, I’ll go back and read the narrative a little closer.
I know I’ve been guilty of breaking these rules on occasion. It’s embarassing to think about, much less read in work that’s been published and is therefore unchangeable. Just the other day, whilst editing Strong Currents 2 with co-editor Michael Little, I found two horrid turns of phrase in my own work that’s about to go to press. I got to change it, but sheesh, how close was that?
The most valuable thing Leonard says in the article (in summing up the 10): “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”