Rules for Writing

By Bob McCrillis

Elmore Leonard, as we all know, is fabulously popular in the crime genre. What I didn’t know was that his work is popular with literary people – the kind who actually have a shot a Pulitzer. Understand, I don’t personally know any of those writers, but read it in the New Yorker.

I was also unaware of his very cold-eyed approach to the business of writing for publication. When he left advertising to write novels in the early Fifties, he found that Westerns were popular so he wrote Westerns. When Westerns dropped out of favor, he switched to Crime.

A writer like this should be my hero, right? Work intended for publication is a product. It needs to be within a recognizable genre. Then I found his Ten Rules for Good Writing.

My work breaks every one – I’m doomed!


  1. Never open a book with weather. Okay, I’ve never opened with “It was a dark and stormy night.” I have described the weather, especially when it figures prominently in how the character reacts. For example, most of us have never experienced the unbelievable downpours of the monsoon where to breathe one has to protect your nose and mouth. That kind of rainfall becomes relevant when the sentry struggles to see through a curtain of rain, wondering if that shape is an enemy or just branches and wind.
  2. Avoid prologues. Both of my current novels begin with prologues. Mr. Leonard argues that it’s laziness on the part of the writer and makes things more difficult for the reader. Put the information in backstory in the early chapters.
  3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. Since I usually write in the first person, I write a lot of dialogue. The word “said” is so limp and innocuous, ugh. Elmore – I can call him Elmore now that I’m in this deep – would say that’s the idea. Don’t let the words get in the way of the story.
  4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely. Without a very tight leash in the hands of a disciplined editor, I would swim in an adverbial sea, try to make up for limp writing.
  5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. Okay! This is the only one that I don’t break too often! Hurray!
  6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.” “Suddenly” is one of my favorite transitions. According to Elmore, the validity of this rule should be self-explanatory. He goes on to say the he’s noticed that writers who break this rule also tend to use too many exclamation points. Good Lord, he’s saying I write like a thirteen-year-old girl.
  7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly. Once you start, you can’t stop. I’ve caught myself in this trap more often than I want to admit. It’s fun to play with though, n’est-ce pas?
  8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters. Wait just a damn minute. They’re my characters and I want the readers to see them as they are and not go making up their own versions – who do they think they are anyway?

Elmore uses Hemingway’s lack of description of the American girl in Hills Like Elephants as an ideal – no physical description in the entire book other than “she put her hat on the table.”

  1. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things. Since I’m usually writing about things with which the reader is unfamiliar, don’t I have to describe them? Think about Tom Clancy’s extensive descriptions of military hardware or even Ian Fleming’s loving descriptions of guns and cars and places. Elmore does allow that a writer like Margaret Atwood, who can paint a vibrant landscape with words, can break the rule. I am not she.
  2. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. What? Readers don’t skip parts of my work. Rather, they tend to skip the whole damn thing. As a reader, I don’t think I ever skip parts of books. I admit that I’m a compulsive follower of rules but skipping a chapter or boring pages? Inconceivable. I just give up on the book.

His final admonition is, “if it sounds like writing, rewrite it.” I have a self-conscious and irrepressible desire to write something pretty – to have a reader remark on how well phrased that was, or to comment, “What an elegant use of language.” This has led to embarrassment. It’s one thing to tell a story badly but trying to show off and failing is far more humiliating.

2 thoughts on “Rules for Writing

  1. I really enjoyed this blog, Bob. It read like a great conversation w/you in my kitchen – love your self-deprecating humor!
    This one-eyed, constant editor did spot a missing word – lol- keep writing!


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