Killing Adverbs and Hooptedoodle: Elmore Leonard’s Rules of Writing

"The Hot Kid" by Elmore Leonard (boo...

Get ready for some clever anti-heroes. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the worst things about Twitter is how often it tells me people die.*

Yesterday, I was working on some notes for a scene and Twitter clicked in to tell me that Elmore Leonard, master of the American crime novel, had died.** He was 87 and, over the course of a long and productive career, had written 45 novels.

45. Just let that number soak into your brain for a moment. And that doesn’t count screenplays and such.

For those of you who didn’t grow up on the steady diet of pulp fiction that I did, Leonard wrote crime thrillers. Westerns earlier in his career as well, but mostly thrillers. A number of them have been adapted for screens big and small, sometimes by Leonard himself.

In addition, Leonard did an essay for the New York Times a dozen years ago, eloquently titled “Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle.” In it, he outlines his rules for writing. You can find it at the above link, or, I imagine, on most news sites today. But the most important one is the last, which he claims sums up the other ten:

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

Sage advice, that. Writing shouldn’t sound like writing, because writing sounds like work. It should sound effortless, natural. Authors should be invisible in their own books, not waving at you from behind every other line. Writing should never get in the way of telling a good story.

And, no, this is not a way to excuse bad writing. Bad writing is anything but invisible. It clunks and drags at the story like a verbose albatross. You can’t ignore it any more than you can ignore a screaming toddler kicking the back of your seat on a transatlantic flight.

Thankfully, unlike said toddler, there are ways to get rid of bad writing.*** Practice, mostly. And Leonard’s other rules aren’t a bad place to start, because above all they emphasize getting out of your own goddamn way and just telling a story.

Good-bye, Elmore. I promise to watch the hooptedoodle.

And she thought if you don’t have the desire to fight or wait for something there’s no reason for being on earth.

Last Stand at Saber River, Elmore Leonard, 1959.

*Both the real deaths and the imaginary ones.
**And I had a moment of panic, because I had recently started re-reading one of his novels and my first thought was that I had somehow killed him from afar. By reading a book. I don’t even pretend to know how my brain works anymore.
***All right, there are ways to get rid of a toddler on an airplane, but most of them are illegal, even if the kid’s being a pain in the ass. Tremendously unfair.

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