My thoughts on writing tips found online and in published works (with some random thoughts thrown into the mix).

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Rules for Good Writing

Tips from Elmore Leonard, excerpted from the New York Times, with my own commentary:
  • 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 verb "said”…he admonished gravely.
  • Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
  • 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.
  • My most important rule is one that sums up the 10: If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.
These are just several starting points to good writing. Some, you know already. Some, you had no idea existed.
Opening with a statement about the weather is like opening a conversation with a comment about how hot/cold/humid/gray it is outside. It is boring and shows you have nothing else to talk about. To grab the interest of your reader, you actually have to start with something interesting. Hook them in, then keep them in your net until your story is over.
Let's be honest here: most readers skip over the prologue like it never even existed. It is viewed as just another way to take up space and is unimportant. It's like watching a preview of a movie right before it starts. Allow your novel to tell its story in its own time, and spend your own time writing it instead of focusing on a prologue.
One point that we are taught in high school and some college courses is that repetition is bad, bad, bad. Instead of using "said" over and over again, you are supposed to mix it up with "told," "asked," and "squealed." Well, now that you are out of those classes, you can throw that rule right out the window. That rule was meant to help advance your creativity. If you want to be a writer, then you already have a creative streak; use it in a more appropriate way.
You want to sound mature and educated to your audience. If you use exclamation points in every sentence, you will sound like a teenage girl in the front row at her favorite band's concert. If you use it frequently in dialogue, it will make your character sound the same way. Repetition makes anything become dull, so save the exclamation marks for when you really need them to make your point.
"Suddenly" has become a cliche in the literary world. It no longer packs any punch and just makes you seem as if you have nothing original in your arsenal. Find a new, creative way to express that something happened when it was least expected.
Yes, it is important to help your reader see the stage you are creating. You have an image of the scene, the characters, and the setting in your head that you want the reader to share with you. However, part of reading is allowing your own imagination to take the lead. Give your reader the ability to fill in the details on their own. They don't need to know that you envisioned the curtains as a bloody shade of red. If they want to think they were robin-egg blue, or think that there were no curtains at all, allow them to do so. Give the reader some room to make the story their own.
When you are proofreading and editing your own work, are there places you don't even want to read? When you describe your story in your head or to someone else, do you leave certain long passages out on purpose? If that is the case, cut them. If there are any important details in that section, find a way to put them in another area of the piece. Don't keep anything that you don't want to read yourself. And be objective. Yes, in an ideal world everything you write would be interesting and worth keeping. You are human, though; be willing to let go.
If you reread your writing and notice the way the punctuation is inserted, the way certain words are used together, then the focus is on the words themselves instead of the story they are telling. If the reader can't get lost in the tale you are spinning, it needs to be rewritten.


  1. These do make sense, I never thought of the prologue that way but you're right, people don't read that. But I think we can agree that it depends on the circumstances sometimes.
    I completely agree with the 'weather' scenario. "It was a sunny day.." that's the definition of cliche.
    Avoiding using other words than 'said' caught my attention. It might just be me, but I think 'said' gets boring after a while. Of course, I know you can't change it for that reason alone, but I use other verbs that might better fit the situation once in a while. And same with using an adverb describing how they said it. I feel in certain points in the dialogue it may be appropriate to express it differently. But like I said, could just be me.
    I think you should mention (if you haven't already) beginning sentences with 'and' or 'but' somewhere in your blog. We're generally taught that this is a deadly sin of writing, but I find it a lot in books, and I do it myself when it makes sense.

    1. I agree, sometimes a prologue is necessary to the piece. However, in most cases, it is not and should be avoided. There are very few exceptions to this rule.

      In my opinion, your words should be able to carry the tone of the dialogue. Just from what the character says and how they say it, your reader should be able to determine the tone of voice and intended meaning.
      On the same subject, I have no problem with using adverbs with "said." However, writers need to be careful here. For example, it is easy to convey that someone shouted in the text, so "he said loudly" should not be used. However, some other forms are harder to emulate, such as "he hissed below his breath."
      You just have to be aware of what you need and what can be left out. For either case, there will always be an exception to the rule. These points are just meant for general guidelines for the majority of writing.

      I honestly hadn't thought about "and" or "but" beginning a sentence, but I will definitely address that in a future post. Thanks for the idea!

      Also, thanks for reading! Come back often, I strive to post daily (and, so far, I am succeeding!).

    2. I believe most rules are conditional, they all have exceptions. But These are definitely good guidelines to keep in mind.
      I'm no expert writer, but I've been doing it for fun for about 6 or 7 years and I took some composition courses in college, so I learned a thing or two by experience mostly.
      And I will certainly be visiting here often, especially since I'm trying to gain some ground on the book I'm working on.
      I started a blog as well, just for philosophy, and there's not much to it yet, but if you want to visit:

    3. It looks good so far! I subscribed to it. I especially enjoyed the post about the supposed end of the world in December.