Rules to write by

Elmore Leonard's here to make us all better writers. Just follow the rules...

By: Luke,   5 minutes

At some point I came round to the understanding that writing was a craft and like all crafts it required, above all else, practice. However I knew from years of following sports that there was practice and then there was practice; the latter being the domain of the pros whose livelihoods depended on consistency, the ability to be good day after day. Theirs was a practice with a purpose. And from this dedication, desire and necessity to improve came a few truths that would form the foundation of their craft.

The same goes for writers. Great writers have honed their craft through writing, writing and then writing some more and in doing so developed a few rules that they swear by. Elmore Leonard wrote his down. I was first introduced to his 10 Rules of Writing at college and over the years I have revisited them many times. Ostensibly they were rules for fiction writers to follow but to me they were rooted in a common sense that was applicable to any kind of writing.

I was planning on another visit, a chance to re-read Leonard’s rules and to review again how they applied to my own work, to see what, if anything had stuck, and ultimately if through my own practice I had created my own set of rules. But I got somewhat side-tracked when I found on the Guardian website an article that comprised not only of Leonard’s rules but those of a host of other writers too.

So I sat and read them all. Some were stylistic, others practical and all of them insightful, particularly when viewed in the context of the writer and their writing. Like Leonard’s rules that inspired the article, they were rules of fiction but like Leonard’s they too had a relevance to any form of writing, especially when distilled to their essence.

The rules were numerous. There were shared sentiments and pieces of contradictory advice, they were playful and serious and often amusing. They all too in some way spoke to the peculiarity of being a writer, a lonely profession but whose purpose is to inform and entertain an audience.

I began to edit them, choosing those, which I felt rung true and applied with regularity to my own writing or, more importantly, those that rang true but I hadn’t been applying to my own writing enough. Here is my list, with a few of my own thoughts scribbled in the proverbial margins.

1) Elmore Leonard – If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

I thought I should start with Leonard and this is his rule to sum up all his other rules. I loved this the first time I read it. I took it to mean that as a writer you have to be able to get out of the way of your writing. If the person reading your work gets consumed by your writing style and loses track of the plot, the message or whatever it is you were trying to communicate, then you’ve failed.

2) Roddy Doyle – Do keep a thesaurus, but in the shed at the back of the garden or behind the fridge, somewhere that demands travel or effort. Chances are the words that come into your head will do fine, eg “horse”, “ran”, “said”.

i) Jonathan Franzen – Interesting verbs are seldom very interesting.

This is essentially an extension of rule 1 and echoed by Jonathan Franzen’s rule. This is a further reminder that I should write with economy and that keeping it simple is often the best way to go.

3) Esther Freud – A story needs rhythm. Read it aloud to yourself. If it doesn’t spin a bit of magic, it’s missing something.

This is a vital rule for me to follow. All writing needs rhythm and reading it aloud allows you to hear this rhythm, its pacing and its pauses. It makes you aware of both punctuation and sentence structure and also serves as a timely reminder that your work will be read by an audience.

4) Annie Proulx – Rewrite and edit until you achieve the most felicitous phrase/sentence/paragraph/page/story/chapter.

i) Esther Freud – Editing is everything. Cut until you can cut no more. What is left often springs into life.

Editing in many ways is the real work. It can be painful to dismantle what took a long time to construct but it’s essential. I’ve taught myself to enjoy it.

5) Geoff Dyer – Do it every day. Make a habit of putting your observations into words and gradually this will become instinct. This is the most important rule of all and, naturally, I don’t follow it.

i) Andrew Motion – Work hard

I have often wondered if the reason that writers, such as Elmore Leonard and Will Self, were great in part because they worked as copywriters for many years. They understood writing as work and were used to doing so on a daily basis. Or maybe this is just wishful thinking! But certainly Andrew Motion’s rule is another that should be etched in stone.

6) Hilary Mantel – If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to ­music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don’t just stick there scowling at the problem. But don’t make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people’s words will pour in where your lost words should be. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient.

i) Helen Dunmore – A problem with a piece of writing often clarifies itself if you go for a long walk.

ii) Mary Atwood – Do back exercises. Pain is distracting.

A product of working hard is the inevitable obstacles that will arrive, from structural problems to simply finding the right words. I have to remind myself to get up and walk away from the computer. It usually helps. It also helps the back.

7) PD James – Read widely and with discrimination. Bad writing is contagious.

i) AL Kennedy – Read. As much as you can. As deeply and widely and nourishingly and irritatingly as you can. And the good things will make you remember them, so you won’t need to take notes.

This probably seems obvious but it’s the mother of all rules for any writer. As much as I like to discover new writers it’s comforting that there will always remain a few great ones whose work I know well that I can turn to for inspiration.

8) Jeanette Winterson – Be honest with yourself. If you are no good, accept it. If the work you are ­doing is no good, accept it.

Honesty is the best policy. I could have saved myself many hours of work if I’d just accepted that the idea and/or the writing wasn’t any good. Starting again is sometimes the only option.

9) Will Self – You know that sickening feeling of inadequacy and over-exposure you feel when you look upon your own empurpled prose? Relax into the awareness that this ghastly sensation will never, ever leave you, no matter how successful and publicly lauded you become. It is intrinsic to the real business of writing and should be cherished.

I might pin this above my desk!

10) Elmore Leonard – Never open a book with weather. If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a charac­ter’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead look­ing for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways than an Eskimo to describe ice and snow in his book Arctic Dreams, you can do all the weather reporting you want.

I wanted to book end my 10 rules with Leonard and this seemed a fitting conclusion. Leonard is right on both accounts. Invariably, readers want you to cut to the chase, whether it’s a novel or a news story. But despite the validity of these rules and many others there are always exceptions, too. However every writer I’ve ever read who routinely broke the rules was a writer of great skill. Most of us are best served by following conventional wisdom!


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