Rules for Writing

So Elmore Leonard wrote a book called Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing. Having read Leonard’s rules (the short version of them, although the fact that he managed to stretch them into a whole book fills me with wonder), I can report that they are either pedestrian (I mean, my high-school English teacher taught me to avoid exclamation points–thanks, Mr. Carter! You see how well I listen!) or dubious (no detailed descriptions of people, places or things? Really?). Frankly, Leonard lost me when he used Hills Like White Elephants as an example of great writing–I hate that story. And don’t get me started on Leonard’s irritating coda to his rules: “My most important rule is one that sums up the 10: if it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

But. It’s an ill wind that blows no good, as Ma Ingalls used to say. Leonard’s book, just now being published in Britain, provoked the Guardian to ask several well-known writers for their own ten rules. Richard Ford counsels aspiring writers not to have children (I have three–does that mean it’s too late?). Anne Enright contributes this gem: “Imagine that you are dying. If you had a terminal disease would you ­finish this book? Why not? The thing that annoys this 10-weeks-to-live self is the thing that is wrong with the book. So change it. Stop arguing with yourself. Change it. See? Easy. And no one had to die.” Colm Toibin forbids alcohol, drugs, and sex while working. And Philip Pullman sums up the whole ridiculous (but entertaining) exercise: “My main rule is to say no to things like this, which tempt me away from my proper work.”

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2 Comments to Rules for Writing

  1. February 22, 2010 at 7:45 pm | Permalink

    From post: “Richard Ford counsels aspiring writers not to have children…”

    Best writing advice I’ve ever read.

  2. February 22, 2010 at 8:39 pm | Permalink

    But in the same piece, Helen Dunmore said: “If you fear that taking care of your children and household will damage your writing, think of JG Ballard.” Something for everyone there! (I didn’t listen to the exclamation point advice either.)

    I particularly like A.L. Kennedy’s: “Remember writing doesn’t love you. It doesn’t care. Nevertheless, it can behave with remarkable generosity. Speak well of it, encourage others, pass it on.”

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