Elmore Leonard’s Tenth Rule of Writing

In the book Get Shorty, Michael Weir — an actor hoping to land a role in a still-to-be written movie — is at a restaurant scanning the menu …

Then Michael had to look at the menu for a while, Harry willing to bet anything he wouldn’t order from it. It was an unwritten rule in Hollywood, actors never ordered straight from the menu; they’d think of something they had to have that wasn’t on it, or they’d tell exactly how they wanted the entrée prepared, the way their mother back in Queens used to fix it.

This scene strikes home with us because it’s so true-to-life, so indicative of self-important people we know. And Elmore Leonard — the author of Get Shorty — does it in just 68 words. He tells us more about Michael Weir with those few words than many writers could have done in four pages.

We lost a great one the other day …

Elmore Leonard died at age 87, on August 20th, in Detroit. If you’re not familiar with any of his 45 novels, I’m sure you’ve seen or at least heard of some of the over 25 movies based on them. They include Jackie Brown, 3:10 to Yuma, Joe Kidd, Mr. Majestyk, and Justified (which also inspired the current TV series).

In researching this article, I noticed USA Today made a glaring mistake. They said “[Leonard] influenced an entire generation of crime writers.” Not true at all.

Elmore Leonard influenced writers of all genres. His works will continue doing so, including … and maybe especially … copywriters. He certainly should be a model for your copywriting. Why? The New York Times called him “A Man of Few, Yet Perfect, Words.” This is his greatest legacy to you as a copywriter.

Elmore Leonard’s Tenth Rule of Writing …

A few, yet perfect words. That’s what powerful copywriting is about. Just the right words. No more than necessary … but always enough to persuade.

You might be writing a 24-page magalog. But every single word in your copy must be there for a reason. No wasted words. No competing ideas. This concise and precise approach to copywriting echoes the last of Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing:

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

Courage … resolve … and a crucial secret …

It sounds so easy. But look at what you’ve written lately. I’m sure — if you’re like me —there are parts of your writing when examined with a critical eye, you know your reader will gloss over.

Do you have the courage and determination to follow Leonard’s tenth rule? Will you leave out unnecessary words and ideas?

Here’s a secret about writers of Leonard’s stature who have the courage to leave out parts readers tend to skip. They don’t leave them out. Not at first. All writers — great, good, mediocre, and awful — write too much. We’re writers. We love words. We love to use them. Sometimes to great excess.

So did Elmore Leonard. But his greatness blossomed during editing. It came with the wisdom to see when something wasn’t necessary and to hack it out.

And when Leonard didn’t or couldn’t see that he’d written too much? He depended on others. He thanked his wife in the Dedication for Freaky Deaky for giving him “a certain look when I write too many words.”

Of course, you approach copywriting differently than you would writing a novel. But the need to be concise and precise is just as strong for each. In copywriting, details and specifics are the foundation for credibility. That doesn’t mean overburdening the reader with so many details that his attention starts to drift. Or that he puts down your letter and decides to read it later. Or worse, gives up on it entirely.

That means understanding how much is really necessary … and how much is too much.

Where does that come from …

Where does understanding how much is enough and how much is too much come from?

Two places. The first is by reading. Read everything. You can’t get a sense of how important concise writing is unless you read writing that is lean and concise. Take an evening and read Get Shorty if you haven’t already. Notice how much Leonard gets across while leaving in only the most important parts.

Leonard doesn’t say that Michael Weir is arrogant. He doesn’t have to. We get that through his actions. He doesn’t give a half-page dissertation on actors’ relationships with their mothers. He lets us wonder about that with the brief reference in the quote. Had he done so, he would have derailed the plot … and us in our reading. Just enough.

So read. Read. And read more. Read fiction. Read nonfiction. Read voraciously.

The second place to figure out how much to write and when you’re writing too much is from your prospect himself. But if I were to go into that right now, that would be too much. So more on that at another time.

One last thing about Elmore Leonard and writing fiction in general. Good fiction … just like good copywriting … depends on creating and maintaining emotion. We’ll cover how to do that in upcoming Golden Threads.

Elmore Leonard was concise, precise, and a master at invoking emotion. And you must be, too, if you want to become an A-level copywriter.

Until next week, keep writing … and reading.

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Published: September 2, 2013

1 Response to “Elmore Leonard’s Tenth Rule of Writing”

  1. Will, thanks for researching and writing about author E. Leonard for us.

    It's a top read on the importance of saying more with less words.

    I read every word of your article - from start to finish - which is a sad thing really. I mean, I wish I would read more AWAI articles that way.

    And so I wanted to compliment you on your own writing.

    Reading you felt like a one-on-one chat. The kind we might have over a lazy cup of Sunday morning coffee. And I was educated too!

    Truly, thanks.

    Mike Searles

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