The Many Rules of Writing

January 18, 2008 | 1 book mentioned 4 3 min read

coverMany writers staring at the blank page have longed for rules to guide them in their efforts, and many such rules have been offered. Elmore Leonard made a foray into this crowded genre late last year with his new book, Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing. The book is adapted from a 2001 New York Times essay in which the master crime novelist laid out his precepts. Taken together, they read like a recipe for his tense, hard-boiled style. He would like us to get down to business: “1. Never open a book with weather.”; “2. Avoid prologues.” and, once we’re there, don’t try to show off: “7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly” and “8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.” Leonard wants us to leave nearly everything out, so that all that’s left is the essence of fiction, a philosophy that goes back at least as far as Hemingway.

William Safire, eminent grammarian, also tells us what not to do, though he is guided by the rules of language and grammar rather than style. The chapter headings of his book How Not to Write: The Essential Misrules of Grammar form a list of 50 clever (and a little tedious) “don’ts,” some of which punningly include “Don’t use no double negatives.” and “A writer must not shift your point of view.” Safire, it should be said, was simply a compiler of what he called “The Fumblerules of Grammar,” not the inventor.

Though he’s not in the grammar trenches, George Orwell’s rules nonetheless share with both Leonard and Safire a call for direct language and unmuddled construction. In his essay “Politics and the English Language,” collected in The Orwell Reader, Orwell makes the case for precision with his six rules, including: “Never use a long word where a short one will do.”; “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.”

Kurt Vonnegut’s eight rules of writing (from Bagombo Snuff Box), on the other hand, get out of the writer’s head and ask him instead to consider the reader and the character: “Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.”; “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.”; “Start as close to the end as possible.”

coverMark Twain, predating all of the lists collected above, shows that a desire for simple language and a concern for the reader is more than a century old. In his essay “The Literary Offenses of James Fenimore Cooper” (no need for subtlety), Twain offers 18 rules that range from the simple “1. A tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere.” to the colorful “7. When a personage talks like an illustrated, gilt-edged, tree-calf, hand-tooled, seven-dollar Friendship’s Offering in the beginning of a paragraph, he shall not talk like a Negro minstrel at the end of it.” (Twain’s essay is collected in The Portable Mark Twain.)

Science fiction legend Robert A. Heinlein eschewed all this talk of language and characters and boiled writing down to its essentials with his five rules of writing in his essay “On the Writing of Speculative Fiction” (collected in Of Worlds Beyond: The Science of Science Fiction Writing). Heinlein’s rules begin “You must write” and end “You must keep the work on the market until it is sold.”

If you grow weary of all these rules, try those crafted by Matt Cheney (proprietor of The Mumpsimus). “If you use adjectives in your prose, do not use nouns. If you use nouns, you must not use verbs. If you use verbs, try to avoid verbs that specify a particular city.” “Bad writing is usually caused by over-ripe fruit, but often enough there is too little rain during the season, and that isn’t any good, either. More good writing is produced by rain than by drought.” So true.

Perhaps the best on the subject, however, is W. Somerset Maugham, who is said to have said: “There are three rules for writing a novel; unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

created The Millions and is its publisher. He and his family live in New Jersey.


  1. Mr. Magee, Don't you know I'm an addict. I've got a crazy-bad 'how to write' books addiction. I've been good lately, really good, then you go and saunter up, pusher-man style, and offer me a taste of all this yummy candy. Damn, damn, damn you… pusher man.

    (Some real gems in here.)

  2. "Bad writing is usually caused by over-ripe fruit, but often enough there is too little rain during the season, and that isn't any good, either. More good writing is produced by rain than by drought."

    This is probably the best "rule" I've ever run across. I remember a kids movie my family watched on The Disney Channel – it was about an in-line skater. He'd had a bad run, the world (basically) depended on his next performance. His younger sister looked at him in utter seriousness and said…"Skate better." He said…"Now why didn't I think of that?" Could apply to writing. "Write Better."

    – DNW

  3. Strunk & White's The Elements of STyle is a great one. I think it's Rule 17 of White's section on style that advises us simply: "Omit needless words." I love that.

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