Authors on the 10 Rules of Writing


Pen graphic
Some time back, The Guardian asked a number of well-established writers to offer their 10 Rules of Writing in response to Elmore Leonard’s own. Those who responded include: Margaret Atwood, Roddy Doyle, Helen Dunmore, Richard Ford, Jonathan Franzen, Esther Freud, PD James, Michael Moorcock, Helen Simpson, Zadie Smith, Colm Tóibín, Sarah Waters and Elmore Leonard himself.

The results make interesting and entertaining reading.

Here are some of my favourite extracts:

Elmore Leonard:

Avoid prologues: they can be ­annoying, especially a prologue ­following an introduction…

Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.

Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” … he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin.

My most important rule: if it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

Zadie Smith:

Try to read your own work as a stranger would read it, or even better, as an enemy would.

There is no “writer’s lifestyle”. All that matters is what you leave on the page.

Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand – but tell it.

Esther Freud:

Trust your reader. Not everything needs to be explained. If you really know something, and breathe life into it, they’ll know it too.

Cut out the metaphors and similes. In my first book I promised myself I wouldn’t use any and I slipped up ­during a sunset in chapter 11. I still blush when I come across it.

Hilary Mantel:

Are you serious about this? Then get an accountant.

Michael Moorcock:

For a good melodrama study the famous “Lester Dent master plot formula” which you can find online. It was written to show how to write a short story for the pulps, but can be adapted successfully for most stories of any length or genre.

(Wikipedia gives this as Michael Moorcock’s summary of the Lester Dent master plot formula: Split your six-thousand-word story up into four fifteen hundred word parts. Part one, hit your hero with a heap of trouble. Part two, double it. Part three, put him in so much trouble there’s no way he could ever possibly get out of it…All your main characters have to be in the first third. All your main themes and everything else has to be established in the first third, developed in the second third, and resolved in the last third.)

If possible have something going on while you have your characters delivering exposition or philosophising. This helps retain dramatic tension.

Ignore all proffered rules and create your own, suitable for what you want to say.

There is much more to savour in these lists. I recommend checking out the full article. Enjoy!

Seb Kirby

Seb Kirby is the author of the James Blake Thriller series (TAKE NO MORE, REGRET NO MORE and FORGIVE NO MORE) and the Raymond Bridges sci fi thriller series (DOUBLE BIND). He says: "I've been an avid reader from an early age - my grandfather ran a mobile lending library in Birmingham and when it closed my parents inherited many of the books. From the first moment I was hooked. Now, as a full-time writer myself, it's my goal to add to the magic of the wonderful words and stories I discovered back then.

You may also like...

7 Responses

  1. DelSheree says:

    I break many of these rules all the time :/ I guess that means I’m taking Moorcock’s advice to ignore all rules and create my own? It’s so interesting to see what each author considers the most important rules for writing. They’re all different!

    • Seb Kirby says:

      As W. Somerset Maugham said: ‘There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no-one knows what they are.’

  1. March 20, 2014


    Authors on the 10 Rules of Writing – Seb Kirby

  2. March 22, 2014

    ed5 uk

    Authors on the 10 Rules of Writing – Seb Kirby

  3. March 27, 2014


    Authors on the 10 Rules of Writing – Seb Kirby

  4. March 27, 2014

    Pandora Charms

    Authors on the 10 Rules of Writing – Seb Kirby

  5. October 28, 2014

    I love your blog

    I have read this article and enjoyed it

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *



Get every new post on this blog delivered to your Inbox.

Join other followers: