June 18, 2010

Elmore Leonard's rules of writing

In this New York Times article from a while back, Elmore Leonard discusses his rules of writing. Here's the one I consider the most important:

• Leave out the parts that readers tend to skip, thick paragraphs of prose [that] have too many words in them.

I know that when I'm translating and I hit those "thick paragraphs of prose," I always groan a bit. And speaking of translating, here's a rule I've come up with recently:

• Don't write stuff that will drive your translator up the freaking wall.

Granted, we're in "do as I say" territory. But exceptions only prove rules by being exceptional, and yours and mine probably aren't. As my brother reminded me recently, it all comes down to:

• Getting rid of everything that gets in the way of the story.

Like that lyrical bit of prose that scans so beautifully (I'm the next T.S. Eliot!), yet on closer examination doesn't really mean anything (again, take pity on the poor translator).

As Philip Pullman has observed, yes, we will put up with bad writing to get to a good story (not the other way around). But why make the reader suffer for the reward?

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