Writing Advice from Elmore Leonard

By MDCarchives (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons
By MDCarchives (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL]

Elmore Leonard is a prolific writer who has entertained us with more than forty novels, including Out of Sight: A Novel, Killshot: A Novel, Get Shorty, Rum Punch, Pagan Babies and many more. Hollywood is an Elmore Leonard fan, and many of his books have been made into movies.

Leonard began writing while still working in advertising. He published a short story in Argosy magazine in 1951, and his first novel, The Bounty Hunters, was published in 1953.

So what can we learn about writing from Elmore Leonard? Much more than can be contained in a single blog post, but let’s start there with some pithy quotes and clever advice from the man Stephen King has called “the great American writer.”

My purpose is to entertain and please myself. I feel that if I am entertained, then there will be enough other readers who will be entertained too.

I don’t write with other writers. I have to be on my own. It can be no other way. I have to maintain my sound.

It took about ten years before my sound emerged. That’s about a million words.

Don’t worry about what your mother thinks of your language.

I’m very much aware in the writing of dialogue, or even in the narrative too, of a rhythm. There has to be a rhythm with it … Interviewers have said, you like jazz, don’t you? Because we can hear it in your writing. And I thought that was a compliment.

Samuel Johnson once said that anyone who would not write for money is a fool. From the horse’s mouth, that’s why we’re doing it, but still attempting to do it as well as we can and not sacrificing our voice. I’m not going to write like some guy who’s making a lot more money than I am just because he is.

On how to get an agent:
My advice is to learn how to write and the agent will find you.

When the ideas occur as you’re writing, as you’re going along, it just works better. You don’t have to belabor some idea that you had a couple months before.

Within the first 100 pages I know who my characters are. Then there’s always a new character who’ll slip in later on, and I’ll say, “Oh God, I’ve gotta give him a name. I like this guy, he’s important.”

You have to listen to your characters.

Once I know who my characters are, I see them all the time. I’m with them all the time. I quit work at six o’clock, and I take a shower and try to forget ‘em, but I don’t.

When you meet somebody who bores you, you have to put up with him until he leaves. But when you meet a boring character, you turn the page.

On whether he has a favorite character:
I like ‘em all. If one doesn’t work, I’ll have him shot.

Bad guys are not bad guys twenty-four hours a day.

My material looks like a movie. Then when the studio gets into it, they find out it’s not quite as simple as it looks.

A line of dialogue is not clear enough if you need to explain how it’s said.

Alcohol never prevented me from writing. But when I quit — on January 24, 1977, at 9:30 a.m. — my fiction got better.

I was brought up Catholic. I don’t go to receive the sacrament anymore. But it’s important to me to go through this little drill about what my purpose is before I get out of bed every morning.

A pen connects you to the paper. It definitely matters.

I have been using a pen now for nearly 50 years. It seems to work ok. I do have an electric typewriter which I bought five years ago which I use each day. Everything is created in longhand. I put it on the typewriter as I do a page or two or three. It has to be on the typewriter to see what it looks like.

I don’t have a computer, so I don’t have to contend with e-mail. I do have — what do you call it, when you send printed messages over the phone? . . . A fax, yeah, that’s it. I do have one of those.

A good editor is someone who knows what your problem is.

There’s a scene in my next book in which a character who’s been traveling around with this girl leaves her in a motel room and goes out to see some buddies. The next morning, he comes back and he’s hungover. Terribly hungover. And he says, “I can’t believe what we did with those chickens last night.” And that’s all he says. She wonders what they were doing with those chickens — but it’s left to the imagination.

If an adverb became a character in one of my books, I’d have it shot. Immediately.

Reading Hemingway inspired me to think about my own sound on the page. I would copy down a paragraph from For Who The Bell Tolls, and, without looking at the book, I’d try to continue writing in that voice. It was an exercise I’d do to try and find my own sound.

I started out of course with Hemingway when I learned how to write. Until I realized Hemingway doesn’t have a sense of humor. He never has anything funny in his stories.

After 58 years you’d think writing would get easier. It doesn’t. If you’re lucky, you become harder to please. That’s all right, it’s still a pleasure.

If work was a good thing, the rich would have it all and not let you do it.

It doesn’t have to make sense, it just has to sound like it does.

My grandson, Max, who is an all state lacrosse player, once gave me some lacrosse advice: A limp pass is like a limp dick; it doesn’t get the job done. I think the same can be said about limp writing.

My most important piece of advice to all you would-be writers: when you write, try to leave out all the parts readers skip.

Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with ‘she asseverated,’ and I had to stop reading to get the dictionary.

Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.

And to sum up, here are Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing:

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.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10:
If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.


  1. says

    Loved this! Some great parts in it that makes me smile. I agree with this: “When the ideas occur as you’re writing, as you’re going along, it just works better.” It’s what I do a lot of the time when I’m writing. I will start off with a general idea of what I want to write, then I just let it flow naturally. If I try to write about something I have no interest in, my words sounds stilted and fake.
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