I’ve been writing for a short while. Obviously, I am now an expert and need to share my accrued wisdom with the world. Yes, that was a joke.
Like anyone who enjoys to read, I like particular authors for their creativity, their characterisation, dialogue and the worlds their characters inhabit – all part of a writer’s style. When I read, I apply the things I’ve learned when critiquing another’s work. This is not always a good thing, as it can distract from the pleasure of reading.
Nevertheless, here are some writing “rules”, by the great writer, Elmore Leonard. He was a huge fan of Ernest Hemingway, an author whose ‘lean’ and ‘muscular’ approach was a major influence on modern writing:
Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue. For example, “he berated”, or “she rebuked”. There are good reasons for this. Strong, well-written dialogue is the basis of character. Using verbs other than “said” or “replied” is the writer getting in the way, an indication that the they may feel uncomfortable using “said” too many times. And that their dialogue isn’t strong enough without the use of additional verbs. When someone reads dialogue, the amateur writer’s verb gets in the way.
Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”. As Mr Leonard says: “To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange.” Putting “she said slyly” or “he replied earnestly” is similar to the last point – the dialogue should be able to stand on its own. The reader is intelligent enough to work out what the character is saying and feeling, if the dialogue is well written.
Avoid detailed descriptions of characters. Readers like to form their own impression about a character’s looks, often at the behest of the author’s actual description. Let the reader use their imagination. A few details are okay, but don’t make them so detailed that the reader has no ‘wiggle room’.
Don’t go into great detail describing places and things. Once again, let the reader’s imagination do this. You can add as much description as you like, but it will slow your story down, and your reader will either picture it to their liking, or skip the cumbersome text.
Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. Many readers (not all, but many) skip large sections of text because they are keen to get to the meat of the novel, and often that’s the dialogue. I bet you’ve done this once or twice. I love J.R.R Tolkien’s overflowing descriptions, but now I’ve read Lord of the Rings a few times, I skip them when re-reading. Sacrilege, I know, but we’ve all been there. And I bet in the case of average books you’re tempted to do the same.
If it sounds like writing, re-write it. You know what I’m talking about. Some writers like to show off, adding lots of unnecessary similes and metaphors, and lovingly described scenes, overflowing with adjectives. I am so guilty of this. Is it necessary? Depends on the story and style you’re writing in. But most of the time, no.
The full text of Mr Leonard’s wonderful 10 Rules of Writing includes these insights (but written far better), and can be viewed at http://www.nytimes.com/2001/07/16/arts/writers-writing-easy-adverbs-exclamation-points-especially-hooptedoodle.html.
Next time you read a book, or start to write one, keep them in mind.
You can find out more about the late Elmore Leonard, by visiting his website at http://www.elmoreleonard.com/index.php.
Ernest Hemingway? Who’s that? Only one of the most important writers of the 20th Century. He won the Nobel Prize for literature, for Pete’s sake. Find out more at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ernest_Hemingway