I’ve always liked – and passed on – the American crime writer Elmore Leonard’s advice to ‘leave out the parts readers tend to skip’, because it’s my philosophy exactly. I’ve been flipping through a very good book called Your Writing Coach by Jurgen Wolff, and in it he presents a list of ten rules that Leonard shared with readers of the New York Times. In the spirit of generosity and shameless plagiarism, I now share it with my readers:
1 Never open a book with the weather
2 Avoid prologues
3 Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue
4 Never use an adverb to modify ‘said’
5 Keep your exclamation marks under control
6 Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose”
7 Use regional dialect or 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 parts readers tend to skip
May biggest argument is with Point 2. I like prologues! They don’t suit all types of story, but I think they can be really effective if they are well done and relevant. I’d say points 3 & 4 are generally good advice, but a bit too draconian. I like to think he was just trying to shock us into taking note, rather than meaning ‘never’ literally. I’m pretty much in agreement with Point 6, which is perhaps shorthand for “Avoid clichés”. And I’d say it’s all right to break rule 9 as long as it’s relevant description. If you’re simply getting a character from A to B, too much description slows things down unnecessarily. But there might be times – say if your character is revisiting his childhood home – where dwelling on the scenery and the emotions it invokes could be both necessary and effective.
Additionally, Leonard said:
My most important rule is one that sums up all ten. If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it. Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative.
And I bet he never went on a writing course!