Should a certain writing style be pushed by authors and teachers as embodying good writing and equivalent to following grammar rules? This week’s Culture Alliance Fiction Friday newsletter featured some very different opinions on this topic. 

Numerous notable authors, including Richard Ford, Neil Gaiman, Roddy Doyle, and P.D. James, provide writing “rules” inspired by Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing. Elmore’s Rules begin with:

1) Never open a book with weather. If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a charac­ter’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead look­ing for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways than an Eskimo to describe ice and snow in his book Arctic Dreams, you can do all the weather reporting you want.

2) Avoid prologues: they can be ­annoying, especially a prologue ­following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in non-fiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want. There is a prologue in John Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday, but it’s OK because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: “I like a lot of talk in a book and I don’t like to have nobody tell me what the guy that’s talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks.”

Should these be followed like the rules of proper grammar, such as subject-verb agreement and when to use “who” and “whom?” Or is this just one writer’s opinion on what constitutes a good story? Two more from Elmore’s list are:

3) Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But “said” is far less intrusive than “grumbled”, “gasped”, “cautioned”, “lied”. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated” and had to stop reading and go to the dictionary.

4) 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. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances “full of rape and adverbs”.

Not all authors think this defines good writing. L. Jagi Lamplighter, author of Prospero Lost, takes strong exception to Leonard’s “rules:”

I have for some time now been a combatant in an undeclared war with a modern school of style that tries to push itself forward as “correct” writing—as if it were grammar—instead of as a style school. I knew this school got its start from Hemingway and that many authors follow it. But it is has recently become so popular that writing teachers are teaching it as if it is good writing instead of opinion.

The other day, I stumbled by accident onto Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing.

And [“rules” three and four, above, are] EXACTLY what I keep hearing, almost word for word.

Hearing from whom? Mainly from would-be writers who learned it from college classes or writing books. Though, occasionally, I have run into it with editors and copyeditors. (The copyeditor for Prospero In Hell changed all my “’xxx,’ she sighed”s to “’xxx,’ she said, sighing.”–I, of course changed them back.)

Who have I never heard this from?
Readers. People who read books and like books but don’t study writing.

What does this mean? It means that it is currently being taught as “good writing”. The same way not using run-ons and having a plot are good writing. But this is not a matter of good writing, it is a style—the same way using the address “Dear Reader” was a style a previous era.

Well, I would formally like to declare war with this school of style, until at which time they back off and admit that they are a preference, not a matter of good writing (much less a mortal sin!)

Why? Because I don’t agree that their ideas—which make great mysteries and Hemingway books—are necessarily good for other types of books.

Have you ever read a Elmore Leonard book? He’s a mystery writer—a good one, I understand, who sells really well. He writes great dialogue. It’s short and quick, to the point, and utterly readable. But it is also almost skeletal in format and short on description.

They are very popular, but I do not read them. Why? Because I want in my book the very kind of thing that he leaves out.

Tone of voice is very important to me. I want to be able to hear it in my head. I really like it when the author tells me what it is. To me, that is not the author “imposing himself.” It is the author faithfully reporting sense impressions.

Author John C. Wright sides with Ms. Lamplighter not Mr. Leonard (in the spirit of full disclosure, Mr. Wright and Ms. Lamplighter reside together in marital bliss):

I was not even aware of this stupid “war on adverbs” that Mr. Elmore declared, since I do not solicit the opinions of others on my writing, nor do I take kindly to the red pencil of the editor when the matter is one of style rather than grammar. The insolence of simply decreeing that what was formerly a matter of style (that is, a matter of artistic judgment and personal taste) is NOW a matter of grammar (that is, simply correct or incorrect according to an objective and impartial authority) is not only breathtaking in its insolence, it is risible in its absurdity: how can one man trying to found a school of artistic taste declare himself, without any precedent, to be the objective authority? It is like seating the prosecuting attorney in the jury box as the foreman.

Good food for thought for any aspiring writer.

Also included in this week’s newsletter:

An excerpt from John C. Wright’s incredible science fiction novel, The Golden Age, provided in the spirit of Mr. Leonard’s “Rule No. 2” – Wright begins his sprawling novel with a Prologue.

A clip from R. J. Snell’s essay “Making Men Without Chests: The Intellectual Life and Moral Imagination” – “Where does such courage come from? Or honesty? Generosity, magnanimity, dignity, liberality, patience, industriousness, modesty, forbearance, good humor, nobility, and reverence? Where do these come from? All these virtues we need to live well—where do we get them?”

Other links to news, reviews, opinion and excerpts included: