Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules for writers: This means you
I mentioned Elmore Leonard in today’s post about novelist M.J. Hyland’s techniques for rewriting and revising.
Leonard is a phenomenal writer, a great stylist. And the way that he’s a great stylist makes him ideal for aspiring sportswriters to learn from: His style is deceptively simple. He works hard to make his writing seem effortless. And he values concision, simplicity and getting to the point.
As with Hyland’s advice, some of Leonard’s rules are a bit specific to fiction for our purposes. Then again, almost all of it can be adapted to sports writing.
Here’s a very brief summary of Leonard’s brief summary in the Guardian of his 10 rules. The boldface is Leonard. What follows any boldface is my comment:
1. Never open a book with weather. Not directly translatable to sportswriting, but it’s a cousin to the idea of getting right to the point quickly in your lead.
2. Avoid prologues. Advice I give a lot to B/R writers is to lead with what your story is about, not context or background, or what Leonard, referring to fiction, calls “backstory.”
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.
6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.” This one and the next three are a lot more relevant to fiction writers than anyone else, but it’s worth noting the underlying ethic.
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 gets quoted a lot, and it’s the kind of glib line that ends up in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. But you should take it seriously. What are your readers likely to skip?
Take Leonard’s conclusion seriously too: “My most important rule is one that sums up the 10: if it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”