In Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, Leonard offers two rules I am finding to be invaluable.
Think about your own reading experiences: What parts do you tend to skip? I usually skip parts where the author tends to ramble, or he keeps repeating the same points. Do we really need 400 to 500 page books when a 100 page book will get the point across? So write for your audience and not some frivolous goal like a word count or to gloat over what you’ve just written. We all know that you are smart, but that doesn’t mean you should dump all your knowledge on us at one time.
I have and continue to take to heart the second rule, because for me it’s such a temptation to help the reader out by pushing an idea or making the moral of the story obvious. But don’t we all learn better when we discover a truth on our own? Isn’t a novel more fun and intriguing when we vicariously enter the story and make our own judgements about the characters and the story’s meaning? I believe this is what Leonard is trying to tell us.
In recent weeks, a lot has been reported in the news about suspicious packages. How does one come to label a package suspicious? Does it have the word suspicious written on it? No. But if I’m walking down a sidewalk in the heart of Atlanta and see a lone package next to the road, I draw my own conclusions–something’s out of place, copycat bombers, terrorist attack, a year’s supply of popcorn, etc. As a writer, you can do something similar–the way you set your characters up, good dialogue, showing and not telling, relevant case studies or examples.
I almost made the blunder of titling this post The Suspicious Package, but then I realized that I was violating Leonard’s rule. But when I call it That Package Beside the Road, I’ve hopefully conjured up a few different scenarios in your mind. As a writer, it is okay to make a point or pass on your wisdom. Just do it in a way that the idea becomes mine and the experience is mine–the reader.
Check out CS Lewis’s quote below. It’s saying something similar to Leonard’s second rule.
In writing. Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, “Please will you do my job for me.”
What about you? Can you identify with Leonard’s rules of writing?