“Write what you know. That should leave you with a lot of free time,” said the pithy poet Howard Nemerov.
Elmore Leonard published “Ten Rules of Writing” a few years ago. The book repackaged Leonard’s 2023 New York Times essay, “Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points, and Especially Hooptedoodle”. Today, on the Word Count blog, Michael Lydon takes issue with Leonard’s rules. While admitting that eight out of the ten rules “are matters of personal taste or make some sloppy sense…” he demonstrates that Victor Hugo, Herman Melville, Anthony Trollope, Leo Tolstoy, Raymond Chandler and (modestly enough) Michael Lydon himself ignore two of Elmore Leonard’s rules to the benefit of readers everywhere. The broken rules?
- 8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
- 9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
I think I understand Lydon’s point. These rules are made to be broken. A few simple props, like a harpoon, or a parrot and an eye patch can make all the difference between Ahab and Long John Silver. Throw in a crocodile, a clock, and–well… a hook and you have a different sailor altogether. So I get it. We really do need a little detail about people, places and things. Except for that, Elmore Leonard’s rulz are dope. For example, number one,
Never open a book with weather. If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways than an Eskimo to describe ice and snow in his book Arctic Dreams, you can do all the weather reporting you want.
A few months ago Leonard’s rules served to introduce a lengthy feature in the Guardian, a compilation of lots of writers’ rules for writing. Margaret Atwood, Joyce Carol Oates, and Annie Proulx are among the dozens of contributors. The aggregation of advice is overwhelming. Some rules ring true (“Work on a computer that is disconnected from the internet.” — Zadie Smith); some are silly (“Do not place a photograph of your favourite author on your desk, especially if the author is one of the famous ones who committed suicide.” — Roddy Doyle); and some are simply self-serving and tedious (“Ted Hughes gave me this advice and it works wonders: record moments, fleeting impressions, overheard dialogue, your own sadnesses and bewilderments and joys.” — Michael Morpurgo).
Ultimately, we can each only write we know. But what we know changes moment by moment. We can learn as we go along, researching scant minutes before putting crayon to paper. Or we can make stuff up. The penalties for making stuff up vary by genre, of course; so too do the rewards. But, whether we have a deep and certain knowledge informing our scribbles or we simply wing it, it’s nice to have rules. We could do worse than leaving out most of the adverbs and almost all of the hooptedoodle.