Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules for Writing


Elmore Leonard — author of Get Shorty, Out of Sight, and Rum Punch — died today.

What was it about his suspense thrillers that made them both popular AND critically acclaimed?

Maybe his own writing rules will provide the answer.

10 things you should watch out for in your writing, according to Elmore Leonard

1. Never open a book with weather.

2. Avoid prologues.

3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely.

5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.

6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

And his most important rule, to sum up all the others: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

What do you think of those rules? Agree? disagree? Let me know in the comments section below.

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Chris Robley is an award-winning poet, songwriter, performer, and music producer who now lives in Portland, Maine after more than a decade in Portland, Oregon. His music has been praised by NPR, the LA Times, the Boston Globe, and others. Skyscraper Magazine said he is “one of the best short-story musicians to come along in quite some time.” Robley’s poetry has been published or is forthcoming in POETRY, Prairie Schooner, Poetry Northwest, Beloit Poetry Journal, RHINO, Magma Poetry, and more. He is the 2013 winner of Boulevard's Poetry Prize for Emerging Writers and the 2014 recipient of a Maine Literary Award in the category of "Short Works Poetry."


  1. […] Elmore Leonard left us more than a year ago, but he left a pithy summary of his writing advice. Chris Robley revived “Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules for Writing” in a post for BookBab…. If you’ve never seen it, you should read it. If you have, you should read it […]

  2. Well, that list should be prefaced with, “If you want to write just like Elmore Leonard, follow this advice:”

    According to these so-called rules, 99% of literature is not fit to read. “A certain JK Rowling broke many if not most of these rules,” he exclaimed suddenly, just before all hell broke loose.

  3. Not too impressed with this list. If I had to read “said” as every dialogue tag in a book, I would slam it shut and throw it across the room. Boring. And annoying. And the proscription about detailed descriptions, so common these days, in my view, panders to an audience that is most likely too lazy to read some of the greatest literature ever written.

    I have been reading a marvelous translation (by Henry Reed; a Signet Classic (c) 1962) of Balzac’s “Pere Goriot” (sorry, no way to make an accent grave here or italicize a book title), which contains descriptions of people so marvelous they make me stand up and cheer. I believe that racing along a plotline without detailed descriptions can often be a cop-out. Writers with real talent can do description in depth and not just get away with it—they put us readers in touch with inner and outer realities that we would be the poorer for not encountering.

    When new authors arrive at my doorstep asking to have their draft manuscript evaluated and/or edited, they often come with this type of nonsense in their mind. I make them WORK to learn how to describe their characters well and, when appropriate, their settings, too. It’s so worth it. (But I do discourage beginning with the weather :)

    • I would gather then that you would be among those who would have advised Mr. Leonard to keep his day job. I for one am happy he persisted beyond. And yes, I enjoy Rowling. But is she a better writer than Hemingway? No. So using her as your lodestar is no better.

      Hemingway wrote his own set of rules. ublished in a magazine article. So did Faulkner. Want to write science fiction? Orson ScottCard dropped a great little book on that decades ago. William Patterson just taught his secrets via MasterClass ($99 on the web for all to see). And how many have all figured they were going to be a bit more altruistic and so have published their own “My Ultimate Way to String Words Together” tomes? (The fact the latter make them some extra coin instead of having to create any new work goes unsaid)…

      I look at rules and guides such as these and I’m reminded of the joke about the Pirate’s Code from the Gore Verbinski screenplay of the first Pirates of the Caribbean film – really, they’re more like guidelines. Ten is an arbitrary number, good for lists (have to love those Commandments) when any self-respecting craftsperson will know there are more. They also know that sometimes breaking the rules, coloring outsides the lines, helps make for better art.

      If you read enough of these books, you will find someone who will contradict someone else’s rule.You will run across an editor who will think Rowling is better than Shakespeare, and someone like me who thinks there is no one right way. Anyone who tells you otherwise has their own agenda in mind.

      At least Rowling has never published her own rules for writing.

  4. An interesting list but I don’t want to write like Elmore all the time. I like reading Elmore, Rowling and Hemingway. But are any of them the best writers in the world? Not to me, and for each of us there will likely be a different answer. And that’s my answer. I enjoy different author’s styles. Look at it this way – if all wine tasted like Chianti, who would go to wineries to taste and buy their wines? For me, I like a good Chianti but wouldn’t want to drink it every day. Each of us should develop our own style, which may change as our writing skills evolve. I find good character development to be enjoyable. I develop my main characters with depth and detail (heroes and villains alike) but unless it is pertinent to the scene I rarely describe what they are wearing, or how the clouds decorate the sky or how the birds sing their songs. But that’s just me, other readers like those kinds of details. I agree with Elmore’s Rule #1, having done it once and found it made the entire chapter weak. I disagree with Rule #10. How would I know what each and every reader will skip? Thank you for reading, but I have to go back to writing now.

  5. Well, my character is driving to a crime scene in the middle of a Nor’easter and she hates snow, so I’m definitely writing about the weather and describing it also. She winds up in the house of a dead woman and is isolated for a couple of days so, to me, the storm has character too.


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