Can Elmore Leonard Save Your Prose?
Elmore Leonard was a novelist and short story writer who began a career in the 1950s writing pulp westerns. As westerns became less popular, he moved to crime fiction, and became known for his tense, engaging plots, memorable characters, and hard-boiled yet quotable dialogue. His characters were clever, sardonic criminals or cops undone by their hubris or stupidity.
It might seem odd to write about a fiction author on a blog about academic writing. But, as I’ve argued in the past, all writing is creative writing. Beyond that, it is always helpful as a writer to look at all different kinds of writing, even if it isn’t a genre one plans to pursue. I cannot do poetry, but reading it can teach me a lot about rhythm, diction, and the pleasing sounds of certain word combinations.
Elmore Leonard is someone that academic writers can learn a lot from. In particular, his list of 10 rules about writing, first published in 2001, has a lot of relevance to what we do as scholar-practitioners. Read on as I explain each of Elmore’s 10 rules of writing and how it applies to the academic world.
2.) Avoid prologues: In fiction, prologues are a convenient way of dumping a lot of backstory in the beginning of the book. Leonard thought this was cheating, as a good writer should be able to bring out elements of backstory through the present actions of the characters. In academic writing, you can think of the “prologue” as the abstract. Some assignments require this, some do not.
3.) Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue: This is something one hears not only in fiction but also in journalism. In academic English, there a few words beyond “said” that you are free to use: “argued” and “claimed” for instance. However, while you want to vary your word choice, don’t go for obscure and big sounding words just because (he prevaricated).
4.) Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely: In my reviews with students, I generally tell them to avoid all adverbs, or words that end with “-ly.” This is because, as Leonard said, these words usually serve no purpose besides adding extra unnecessary language. There are exceptions to this rule when they might be necessary, but in general, be cautious of all adverbs.
5.) Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose: On the Internet, the exclamation point is the most used means of conveying excitement and emotion (followed by the emoticon). But a good writer conveys feeling through words, not punctuation. This rule is even stricter in academic writing. Never include any exclamation points in any academic paper ever, unless for some reason it is part of a quote (which is very, very unlikely).
6.) Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose:" Avoid all common clichés, casual expressions, and well-worn phrases in academic writing. For more on this, see my past blog post where I expand on the importance of avoiding clichés.
7.) Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly: If you have anything in a paper that sounds like regional slang or phrases that would not be familiar to the majority of English speakers, try to remove them. They probably do not belong in an academic paper.
8.) Avoid detailed descriptions of character: In the academic realm, take this to mean that you should not include extraneous details about your source other than what the source said or claimed. The degree level of your author, the title of the article, the name of the institution who funded the research, and any biographical details about authors should be avoided.
9.) Don’t go into great detail describing places and things: This is related to the previous rule. Just as biographical details about authors of sources are not relevant, try to avoid going into too much history about locations or instruments under study.
10.) Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip: Unfortunately for this final rule, academic writers do not have the option of skipping information if it is important. However, you do want to avoid situations where you repeat the exact information twice. Sometimes I see papers that will reiterate certain key claims for emphasis. That is usually unnecessary, especially if it is something you mentioned very recently in the paper.
As you can see, some of these rules matter more in the sphere of academic writing than others. But all of these rules are worth considering in all types of writing. Leonard’s ultimate, final goal was this one: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” Elmore Leonard was never about impressing his readers with fancy words or psychological acuity. He wanted to tell stories in the fastest, most efficient way possible. The next time you start writing a paper, consider that. You don’t need to impress your reader or prove how smart or interesting you are. Simply tell the story you want to tell in the clearest way possible.
Anything to add? Do you have rules that govern your academic writing? Keep your own list going in the comments down below.
Nathan Sacks is a writing instructor in the the Walden University Writing Center. He also enjoys writing books, playing guitar, and playing with cats.
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