Elmore Leonard, the great crime novelist who died today aged 87, was a master of unfussy, no-frills American English. I’m not a huge fan of the genre in which Leonard did most of his work, but I’ve always admired him for his professionalism–he wrote more words in a month at the height of his working career than Jonathan Franzen is wont to produce in the course of a year–and his curmudgeonliness.
The best distillation of Leonard’s feelings about “fine writing” can be found in “Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle,” a 2001 New York Times article that he later expanded into a book called 10 Rules of Writing. Below are the rules themselves (see the Times link for Leonard’s elaboration of each):
- Never open a book with weather.
- Avoid prologues.
- Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
- Never use an adverb to modify the word “said.”
- Keep your exclamation points under control.
- Never use the words “suddenly” or “All hell broke loose.”
- Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
- Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
- Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
- Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
Leonard also added, in a brilliant flourish of self-conscious philistinism, “My most important rule is one that sums up the 10. If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”
I agree completely with 3., 5., and 7.; more or less endorse 4.; but find myself put out by 1., 8., and 9. My favorite novel (or rather cycle of novels), Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time, begins and ends with weather and consists mostly of detailed descriptions of characters, places, and things.