by Sean Chercover
On July 16, 2001, the New York Times ran an essay on writing, penned by the master, Elmore Leonard. The essay was called “Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points, and Especially Hooptedoodle.” In it, Leonard presented his 10 Rules of Writing, perhaps the most oft-quoted of which is:
#10 - Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
It was a brilliant essay, and caused quite a sensation among crime writers. Leonard’s 10 Rules ended up posted all over the Internet, usually as bullet points without the accompanying commentary. Which was a shame, really, because it was Leonard’s commentary (including his exceptions to some of the rules) that really brought the thing to life.
But a couple years ago, the now-legendary essay was published in book form, titled (appropriately enough), Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing.
Of course I bought a copy.
An aside: If you write fiction, and have never read Leonard's fiction, you are in danger of becoming (as FizzWater would say) a dumbass. Reading any Elmore Leonard novel will teach you more about good writing than a dozen “How To Write” books. And besides, they’re terrific fun to read. Go read him.
Where was I? Oh, right. So a couple weeks ago, I ran across a blog post by Anthony Neil Smith (another great crime writer you shouldn’t neglect), over at First Offenders. The post is called Smith’s Rules, and it is both a hoot and a holler.
I may not be in complete agreement with all of Neil’s rules, but certainly most of them. And I was happy to see him echoing Elmore Leonard’s disdain for the liberal use of adverbs.
Smith’s Rule #4 – Would you get rid of the adverbs, already?
Leonard’s Rule #4 – Never use an adverb to modify the verb ’said’ . . .
And in the commentary, Leonard continues, “To use an adverb in this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin.”
So these guys are no friends of adverbs. Nor am I.
Another aside: Why do bad writers use “hungrily” in a sex scene, and then “lustily” when a character scarfs down a slice of pizza?
Granted, there are a few great writers who make adverbs sing. But in almost every case, you will improve a sentence by cutting the adverb and finding a better verb to replace the weak one that you were trying to prop up. More often than not, when you see a lot of adverbs on the page, you are in the presence of lazy writing.
Okay, so here’s your assignment: Go read Smith’s Rules, then come back and post one pithy rule of your own. I will send my copy of Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing to the person who comes up with the best new (to me) rule.