Tag Archives: Elmore Leonard

Why Do We Write?

Published / by Robyn Jane / Leave a Comment


Ever ask yourself why you write?  I’d be interested in your reasons.  Of course, to be fair, I’d have to tell you some of my reasons for writing.

For me, it all comes down to a matter of survival.  I’m not very articulate when it comes to speaking; I can’t always find the right words at the time.  But when I’m writing, I have the time to find the clarity, to select the exact words that I want.  Then, too, I have time to reread what I’ve written, and to look at it dispassionately.  In that sense, it’s different from, say, Facebook, where most of us (myself included) just post replies willy-nilly without taking the time to think out what we’re saying, and what effect it might have on readers.  I’ve lost a couple of Facebook friends that way.

So why do I say it’s a matter of survival?  Because like all other humans, I am first and foremost a social person.  And being social means—among other things—communicating with other people.  And for the reasons I gave above, that’s something I do much better through writing than through talking.

But I also write for the sheer enjoyment of writing.  I write my stories for my own satisfaction and entertainment.  I write for an audience of one, and if other people enjoy it, that’s just frosting on the cake—the cake being, in this case, my own enjoyment.

I’d like to share with you something I found on the internet yesterday.  I’ve always enjoyed Elmore Leonard’s novels; he’s a successful writer, and the article I found contains his hints for writers.  So without further ado, here are

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.”

I particularly agree with his Rules 8 and 9:  Once you have described a character, place or thing in great detail, you always have to be referring back to that description so that you don’t say anything that conflicts with the original description.  For me, that can break my train of thought and ruin my whole writing session.  Besides, all of that detail most likely falls under the definition of Rule 10.

Rule 7 makes a lot of sense, especially if you don’t want to come across like Uncle Remus.  Besides, unless you yourself speak the dialect you’re using, it’s too easy to make mistakes, if’n y’all knows what ah means.  Finally, most people find it too hard to follow dialect or accents.  And you do want to make it easy on your readers, right?

But let’s not confuse rules with techniques.  Rules, like those formulated by Elmore (“Dutch”) Leonard, have to do with the story itself.  Technique, on the other hand, has to do with the physical act of writing.

Over the years, I’ve read a lot of books and articles on writing.  At one time I owned the entire Paris Reviews interviews of working writers.  I lucked out and bought them on sale at a clearance sale at the University of Alaska.  Sadly, over time and travels, they’ve disappeared.  If you’re not familiar with these interviews, some of the questions asked have to do with technique:  how a particular writer structures his writing time.  They range from one author who sits at his typewriter for two hours each day—not a minute more, not a minute less—to the one who wears a suit when he writes, leaning on the mantel above his fireplace, writing in longhand with a pen on legal-sized yellow pads.

What I’ve been able to distill from these interviews with some 40 writers, ranging from Ernest Hemingway to Jean-Paul Sartre and everywhere in between, is this truth:  The only right way to write is whichever way works best for you.  After all, you’re not Hemingway or Sartre or Dutch Leonard.  And everyone else’s rules are rules they have created because they work for them!  There’s absolutely no way I could begin to write it I had to wear a suit (which I don’t even own), or write in longhand.  When I took Freshman Composition at the University of Alaska all those many years ago, I was unable to write in class:  I am unable to write at all.  But give me a keyboard, and the words flow.  So my friend Michael Ciri and I asked the professor if we could go to the computer lab (right down the hall) to do our stories.  She immediately understood, and let us do that.

And that’s my own technique:  with rare exceptions, I cannot write in longhand.  I must have a keyboard.  It’s something I discovered when I was 18 years old and writing college papers.  The typewriter gave way to the desktop computer, which was soon replaced by the laptop, which has since been augmented by the Android tablet.  Still, as convenient as the tablet is to carry with me, the keypad doesn’t have the tactile feedback that the laptop’s keyboard has.  So I suspect that however technology develops in the future, I’ll always be the Luddite who insists on a physical keyboard for my writing.

But that doesn’t mean I’m telling you that’s the way to write.  If I had to formalize my own first rule of writing, it would cover both style and technique: The only right way to write is whichever way works best for you.

And that’s it in a nutshell.