My Ten Rules of Writing

Dec 07, 2015

Years ago, the late, great Elmore Leonard published his ten rules of writing in the New York Times. They were both fun and instructive, the best of all being “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” He was then followed in this by Dennis Lehane, P.D. James and many others.

Without putting myself in their class, I humbly offer my own ten rules:

1. Create characters with strong needs and send them on a journey worth telling.
2. Place significant obstacles in their paths and reveal their characters through the actions they take to get around them.
3. Do enough research to be authoritative and plausible, but keep it to a minimum in the text.
4. Read voraciously, especially but not exclusively in your genre.
5. Tell your story with a sense of urgency, in the most compelling voice you can muster.
6. As Hemingway advised, end your writing day before you’re spent, so you know where you’re starting tomorrow.
7. Outlining, even in your head, can save you months of grief. And it can be every bit as creative as writing itself.
8. Throw everything you’ve got at the first draft. You can always cut it later.
9. Listen to the way people talk. Develop an ear for dialogue if you don’t already have one.
10. Do not, under any circumstances, make the mistake I did and quit your day job before your first book comes out.

11. Bonus: A first draft is just that. Once you finish it, get people to read it. Takes their comments graciously, even if you don’t agree with them. Sleep on them. See if they make sense in the morning. For me, revisions are where the best writing happens. Cut what’s not needed, tighten the springs that provide tension, sharpen dialogue. As much as you revise your completed text, polish your first few chapters to a fine point.  Bring them to a note of suspense. Create a worthy sample of 5,000-10,000 words to show an agent or publisher if you get the chance.