Writing Rules the Good, the Bad, the Ugly

by Gina Burgess

Like me, you may have wondered where in the world all those rules about writing came from. From people who supposedly know about writing. Duh. In one of my Facebook groups, someone asked, “What is the writing rule you dislike the most?” I’m amazed at some of the dislikes, so I thought I’d ask you. But before we go there…

No one can deny that Elmore Leonard is a very successful author. He wrote books that went on to be successful movies… maybe not family-friendly fare, but successful. His legacy lives on in these and for authors, his 10 Rules of Writing. On WikiMedia, his 89-page book was condensed into a Reader’s Digest version:

  1. Never open a book with weather: 

If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people.

  1. Avoid prologues: 

They can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword.

  1. 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. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied.

  1. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”: 

… he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange.

  1. Keep your exclamation points under control:

You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.

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

This rule doesn’t require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use “suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.

  1. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly: 

Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apostrophes, you won’t be able to stop.

  1. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters: 

In Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” what do the “American and the girl with him” look like? “She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.” That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story, and yet we see the couple and know them by their tones of voice, with not one adverb in sight.

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

You don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.

  1. 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.

I’m sure you recognize all of these, correct? Personally, as an editor, I have a huge problem with rules that start with “Never” or “Always.” Writing situations often call for breaking a rule, well, just because.

I’m sure you recognize all of these, correct? So now that your mind has been refreshed by these rules—and these aren’t the only rules by any stretch—what is the writing rule you dislike the most? Why? Here’s the kicker: What is the rule you like the best? Why?

44 thoughts on “Writing Rules the Good, the Bad, the Ugly”

  1. I like them all. The regional dialogue is the only one I have broken, but it’s only with one character who is black. But I did not see anything about cutting. That one is my favorite. And I think it’s very important. Drivel can go on for centuries, cut it and everything gets stronger, even the pace. I agree with all the rest of the rules. I have written for centuries so I know the rest of the rules are valid. Experience is always the best teacher. Thanks.

    1. Karen, you are absolutely correct that experience is the great teacher:) I used Cajun dialect for a minor character in a book I haven’t published yet. The only book I’ve ever read that I couldn’t finish because of dialect was one set in the Mid-West with Swedish speaking characters. No explanation of what the words meant. Another book had a lot of French in it without explanation, which I don’t speak. A sprinkling is spice, too much and it’s like a fly in the ointment.

      1. That’s true — you can use dialect to your heart’s content, as long as it doesn’t interfere with comprehension! (And I found that the best way to gauge that is to clear your head, read back the dialect you’ve written, and see whether or not it requires undue effort to understand!)

          1. I actually recommend reading it TWICE — first silently and then out loud — and if on EITHER of these you have to struggle with understanding what the character said, then rewrite in normal English!

  2. Always use said is the one I dislike the most. Using adverbs with said is a huge no no but I prefer to use action tags most of the time. The ones I love, love, is to get rid of all that useless description. Not only is it boring and distracting it slows the action.

    1. I agree. That’s why I’m not crazy about no adverbs. I can understand not using: she screamed crazily. That is sort of implied. But not being able to say something like: she whispered angrily and instead having to say she whispered through clenched teeth, can get just as convuluted and wordy.

      1. The way I see it is, action tags are the best way to convey emotion; if this is not enough, then use adjectives; but if that in turn is not sufficient, then go ahead and use that adverb!

          1. Yes, that’s what I meant — I must have used the wrong term to describe it! Consider me terminologically challenged 🙂

  3. I disagree with No. 3, as the constant use of “said” can get monotonous for readers. I totally agree with Nos. 8 and 9.

    1. The theory is that readers will generally skip over the describers and just catch the name of the person speaking. Also, this is giving readers’ imaginations credit for infusing the right emotion into the dialogue.

      I have often said that we authors don’t give readers’ imaginations enough leeway, but we all have to remember that we are the captains of their imagination vessel. If we don’t steer correctly then their imagination will flounder on the reefs. So using descriptors is a must, but maybe not using adverbs so liberally that we create our own reef is a good guideline.

  4. I love this blog! I printed it off to keep it handy as a reminder of these taboos in writing that I’ve previously learned at conferences and workshops but sometimes forget. Just yesterday, I nearly broke rule #10 (showing versus telling). I had my characters jotting down a list of points and postulations to help them fine-tune their investigation when they arrived at their setting of interest. Instead, I will have them merely mention that they’ve composed an orderly plan in advance of their visit, and then have them make postulations as they proceed through their field research and interviews. This blog was timely in helping to support this change. . .thank you!!!!

  5. I despise rules. Tell me I can’t or shouldn’t do something and I find a way to bend, or break, that rule, make it work. Rules become troublesome when someone tells me, “Yeah, but Elmore Leonard says…” You’re a writer, write! Be creative. Find some new way to express yourself, even if it means borrowing a technique Joseph Conrad or Victor Hugo used more than a century or two ago.

    I prefer best practices to rules. Leonard’s “never” rules annoy me. Ever hear the adage, “Never say never”? Yes, generally “said” should be only word used to carry dialogue. That doesn’t mean “asked” shouldn’t be used on occasion, or even he or she “told” someone. Adverbs can be used to great effect—if used sparingly.

    Yes, avoid clichés; but when a text reads as if the writer is simply trying to avoid a cliché, that’s annoying.

    Thing is, where description is concerned, I love it—when it’s done well and not just information dump or a grocery list. It can be interlaced with dialogue or action: “You have the most beautiful green eyes,” he told her. Or, He looked at his image in the mirror and thought, Nothing wrong with gray hair. Just ask any bald guy.

    Reading, like writing, is highly subjective. Any text is only as good as what its words make happen inside a reader’s head, and no two readers are alike. What makes my heart soar might make another reader yawn, and that’s okay.

      1. Thanks, Gina.

        I forgot to also add to my post that, in order for a rule to be bent, broken, or ignored, a writer first must know the rule and understand it. Otherwise they look like a hack who doesn’t know the basics of good writing.

        J.

  6. Well, as they say, rules are made to be broken! 😉 I’ve broken all those at various times–I think to good effect. My forthcoming book has a prologue. However, generally speaking, those are good guides to follow when there’s no good reason to override them.

  7. I don’t like the ‘said’ rule -at least not all the time – it becomes boring and a speaker can do better. I broke Rule #7 this week. I used words from several languages in my current novel, and in a previous novel I went to extremes to study, spell and use a Louisiana swamp dialect to help describe one of the characters. I don’t know if it is a rule, but I often use dashes within sentences – in lieu of commas or semicolons – to interrupt thoughts. Lastly – to add my pet peeve – I believe chapters should have titles, just like a book has a title. Chapter names serve as a roadmap for the story. What good does a list of numbers do for a reader – use a bookmark – and it is fun to describe what you are writing about. What good is a 1, 2, or 3 …. 35?
    Rules are to be broken if done correctly.

    1. P.J. Wodehouse was excellent with chapter titles. They are often extremely funny and thought provoking. Chapter titles often remind me of those Saturday morning “Meanwhile, back at the ranch…” episodic TV shows. 🙂

  8. These so-called “rules” are PRECISELY the reason why so much of today’s writing SUCKS! Read any of the great classics from 70 years or more ago — or even some of the bestsellers from 20 or so years ago — and you’ll see the author not just breaking but flat-out IGNORING at least half of these “rules”, ESPECIALLY #9! And, BTW, the kind of “writing” which follows these “rules” is PRECISELY what Bradbury had warned AGAINST in Fahrenheit 451 (which is not primarily about censorship, as many people mistakenly believe — understandably so, given that book-burning is the most shocking aspect of that novel, even though in fact it’s a secondary thing — but about the dangers of dumbed-down writing breeding dumbed-down readers and vice versa in a vicious cycle of dumbing-down, until we end up with an ignorant and semi-illiterate nation!)

    1. That is so true. Society has a tendency to promote group thinking, and some of these rules seem to promote formulaic writing–to me, that’s the most boring kind of writing out there.

      1. Thank you! And rule #9 is the one I hate the most — when properly done (as many great writers have done, from Walter Scott to Tom Clancy), description can greatly enrich writing by making it highly immersive and thereby engaging the reader! And not only that, but a form of description (namely, exposition) is REQUIRED if you want the reader to learn new things along the way — so if you cut that out, then not only do you fail to immerse the reader, but you also forswear in advance any chance of your writing being in any way educational (which is the other way it becomes dumbed-down writing)! (And also, some settings just flat-out REQUIRE at least some degree of exposition in order for the reader to understand what’s going on — for example, if your novel has even one character piloting any kind of aircraft, then you have to explain the basics of flying at least in a few words, because if you don’t, then your reader won’t understand why icing is such a bad thing or why flying too slow can be dangerous!) Now, I agree that info-dumping can be boring — but that’s why all good writers need to learn how to make descriptions interesting, rather than avoiding descriptions altogether!

  9. I have a problem with ending a sentence with an adverb. I really have to work at refraining from doing it. I also agree that ‘said’, used over and over, gets boring. I was taught to find other ways to convey the thought of a conversation continuing. I was also taught that a conversation between two people did not need the extension of ” He said” or “She said”.

    Back in high school, we were taught not to end a sentence with a preposition. I see it done quite a bit.

  10. I love all of Elmore Leonard’s rules-but only as he originally wrote them. In the original version, all but the last have an “unless” at the end. “Never open with the weather…unless you can do it as well as x or y author.” And then he gives an example of someone who breaks the rule in a way that works. When you read the whole thing in context, he’s saying—in essence—that these are all difficult things to do effectively, and you should avoid them unless you can do them well.

    The only one he doesn’t make an exception to is the one that says if it sounds like writing he rewrites it. But I think what he means by that is writing that sounds like it’s trying too hard, and if so, then I agree with him in that one too.

    1. Exactly! And in THAT version, I have no objection — never open with the weather unless you can do it as well as Jack London, never describe your characters in detail unless you can do it as well as Margaret Mitchell, and never set the scene unless you can do it as well as Tom Clancy! THESE rules I can get behind — especially since I’m pretty good at writing precisely these kinds of passages (having been exposed to old-school writing all my life!)

  11. I have taken exception to all these rules. I especially hate number 3. Said, said, said, said, said . . . Hey, give me a break. We should all try to avoid overt repetition of all words. I try not to use a lot of detail in describing characters or setting. I think we should all practice minimalism. If you mention a young boy with long hair and a tie dye T shirt, I don’t think you have to describe the rest of his face or body.

    1. Well, one thing to remember about describing characters–if you are going to describe hair color, eye color, etc (readers of romance want those details) be sure to describe early on and not several chapters in. Action/Adventure readers don’t really need that kind of detail, but it might be a crucial detail in a mystery.

      I tell my clients all the time, “If you don’t describe early, readers will fill in those blanks on their own. If you describe late, it jerks the reader from the story flow to tell them the character they have seen with blonde hair now is a brunette. It is very irritating to be jerked around with like that.”

      1. And the same goes with setting the scene — do it early, because you don’t want your reader to think (for example) that your story takes place in rural Oregon at the turn of the 20th century if it actually happens in occupied France during World War 2!

  12. All rules were made to be broken, including cliches like this one. Write concisely and anything goes. I believe in description via POV, or more plainly what another character says or does. You don’t have to say a guy is big if he fills a doorway, or tall if he ducks his head walking through the door, or a pig if he spits on the floor or drags a woman across the pasture by the hair. See my WRITE COMPELLING FICTION for more.

  13. I don’t believe in rules for writing at all, it’s nonsense. Advice or guidelines, sure, but not rules.

    Having said that and since we’re playing this game:
    – I like and completely agree with the “rule” of never describing characters; the best pictures are always in our heads and I’m certain that my mental image of any given character is totally different from someone else’s, which just proves that descriptions are pointless.

    – I don’t really agree with the not using phonetic dialect rule, especially when the expressions and pronunciation of the character in question is integral to the feel or humour of their dialogue.

    1. Hi Guy,

      I read a murder mystery in which the author had broken all the “rules” of murder mystery writing–she explained in detail the actual murder, told who the murderer was, kept secrets from the reader, and generally ruined a perfectly good murder mystery read. Then she bragged about breaking the rules at the end of her book. I hated that book and have never read another one of her books. I read another book in which the author set everything up perfectly for a most excellent murder mystery, and the thing went nowhere–no mystery, just a blooming soap opera.

      So there are some great rules of writing that help readers to get a good reading experience unless the author writes so well he/she grips the readers’ hearts, gets into their heads, and writes a story flow that rivals Niagra Falls. Of course, that’s the opinion of someone who has read numerous books and been an editor for more than five years.

      While I agree with you on using phonetic dialect for delicious reading flavor, I have to disagree with not describing characters.

    2. Gina is right on — read Gone With the Wind and then see if you still think that the best pictures are always in our heads and that descriptions are pointless!

      1. That is really weird, I was going to mention Rhett and Scarlette. The descriptions that Margaret Mitchell give of them smacks perfectly of Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh–that is exactly how I pictured them when I read Gone with the Wind when I was 13 years old. 🙂

        1. Exactly! And Victor Fleming certainly paid close attention to the descriptions — hence the casting choices! (BTW, that book is EXTREMELY hard to adapt to film, because so much of the important stuff goes on purely inside Scarlett’s head — hence many important points were inevitably glossed over!)

  14. I like to read prologues. I’ve heard the advice for fiction book writers to make a prologue the first chapter, but I think when appropriate to the story, a prologue can set up suspense and mystery in an intriguing way.

    1. I think the reason why prologues got such a bad rap is because of Fenimore Cooper (who always used them to give background info before actually starting the action — which was probably necessary at the time, given that the average reader back then had NO knowledge of history — and whose prologues read like a Joint Chiefs of Staff briefing) and Mark Twain’s criticism thereof (he was wrong on many points regarding Cooper’s writing, but on this point he was right!)

  15. If a prologue is very short and the action far removed from the timeline of the main story, it’s a prologue, not a chapter. I.E. Peter Benchley’s prologue to “The Deep.”

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