While I’m always reading about writing, or trying to learn about writing by reading, I have most benefited and gotten the most food for thought from the lists of personal rules and guidelines great writers have set for themselves. While it’s possible to divine a writer’s personal rules simply by reading their work—who didn’t realize, before his Oprah interview, that Cormac McCarthy wouldn’t touch a semicolon?—I’m always interested to see a writer lay out his or her rules for others.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because I’ve finally gotten around to reading some Elmore Leonard. I recall reading Leonard’s celebrated ten rules for writing in college, when I didn’t even know who he was, and I recall objecting to several of them. Older and wiser now, and finally familiar with his work—in the last month I’ve read Valdez is Coming, Freaky Deaky, Last Stand at Saber River, Hombre, Out of Sight, and the short story “Three-Ten to Yuma”—I can see the wisdom of his rules and the way he used them to form his writing. I also appreciate, based on interviews I’ve watched with him before he died, how undogmatic he was about the ten rules—a trait that we’ll see he has in common with these other two writers.
Leonard’s rules were originally published in The New York Times as “Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle” in 2001. You can read the whole article online at the NYT—or the Guardian if that’s paywalled—but here are the ten rules themselves:
Never open a book with weather.
Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
Never use an adverb to modify the verb “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.
“My most important rule,” Leonard goes on, “is one that sums up the 10. If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”
Again, I appreciate how unassuming Leonard is about his rules—they’re his rules, he reiterates, not universally applicable Newtonian laws of good writing. “There are certain writers,” he says in this interview from 2002, “who can write all the weather they want.” It’s all about proportion, achieving a desired effect, and getting out of your own way.
To move from fiction to non-fiction, George Orwell, in his essay “Politics and the English Language,” which I’ve blogged about a couple times before, similarly concludes with a list of six rules that should govern any writing that aims at arguing a point and telling the truth, particularly in the political essays Orwell mastered.
Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
Never use a long word where a short one will do.
If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
Never use the passive where you can use the active.
Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
Again, a final law that sums up the rest, and again, an insistence that “one could keep all of [these rules] and still write bad English.” Rules are important, but the rules won’t save your writing.
Finally, to turn to a writer superbly skilled at both fiction and non-fiction, CS Lewis actually provided guidelines or rules on a couple of occasions, two of which are collected in this 2010 post from Justin Taylor. From a letter to a young American fan in 1956:
Always try to use the language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure your sentence couldn’t mean anything else.
Always prefer the plain direct word to the long, vague one. Don’t implement promises, but keep them.
Never use abstract nouns when concrete ones will do. If you mean “More people died” don’t say “Mortality rose.”
In writing. Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the things you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us the thing is “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers “Please, will you do my job for me.”
Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say “infinitely” when you mean “very”; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.
And from his final interview in the spring of 1963:
The way for a person to develop a style is (a) to know exactly what he wants to say, and (b) to be sure he is saying exactly that.
The reader, we must remember, does not start by knowing what we mean. If our words are ambiguous, our meaning will escape him.
I sometimes think that writing is like driving sheep down a road. If there is any gate open to the left or the right the reader will most certainly go into it.
You can see a variety of concerns in these lists of ten, six, and five respectively, but what do Leonard, Orwell, and Lewis share?
First, I see a particular concern with clarity. Several rules relate to this, from Lewis’s insistence on concrete rather than abstract to Orwell’s warning against foreign vocabulary. I’ve heard Orwell accused of being a “linguistic chauvanist” because of this; what he’s concerned with is clarity, concreteness, and the avoidance of abstraction. Bureaucratese and journalistic flimflam tend to shroud things in a luminous fog of latinate jargon. Lewis’s example of “mortality rose” is a good example of what Orwell, who had plenty of experience with socialist and Communist verbal shenanigans, had in mind.
Second, I also see a related concern with directness. Leonard, as an author of fiction, is perhaps the best on this point. Whether avoiding clumsy, amateurish dialogue tags—one of the surest marks of the hack—or not bogging down the narrative in stylistic frippery or elaborate descriptions, his rules are all about his “attempt to remain invisible, not distract the reader from the story with obvious writing,” which extends even to the rules of grammar: “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.” Orwell seconds that motion, explicitly advising the writer to “break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.” Orwell gives some of the most precisely mechanical advice in these three sets of rules, down to the old active-passive voice debate. Perhaps the biggest weakness of passive voice is that it doubles the grammatical logic of a sentence back on itself—in other words, it’s indirect. In Lewis’s deceptively simple formulation, write “exactly” what you want to say.
Third, all share a concern with what I’ll call liveliness. Orwell warns us away from cliche; Leonard shoos us away from long descriptions, unnecessary details about weather or setting, and any “part that readers tend to skip.” Not for nothing are cliches, in what is now a bit of a cliche itself, called “dead metaphors.” Clear, direct writing will have a living quality to it—the images will simply appear in your mind without coaxing. Witness Lewis’s image of driving sheep down a road.
Finally, I see these three writers, in the lack of dogmatism I’ve already noted on their part, trying to give advice but leaving open space for art. Despite their emphases on clarity and directness, all three are aware of the subjectivity of language and all three urge their readers to take care. They realize that all the sweat and blood a writer can possible pour out in pursuit of precision can still result in failure, and so they all conclude by saying: drop the rules when you need to. And you will need to.
Perhaps more later, and perhaps I could gloss a few of these things from examples of where I’ve tried—tried—to implement them in my own writing. For now, read these three lists of rules, read these three writers to see where their rules led them, and learn.