The 10 Writing Commandments of Elmore Leonard

Elmore Leonard, writer
Elmore Leonard – Flickr, Creative Commons license

Writing about editing the other day, I was fishing around for that great Elmore Leonard quote—you know:

“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

And I discovered it’s part of an entire article he wrote about writing in The New York Times. It’s his 10 Commandments of writing, and—spoiler alert—he calls this the “most important rule.” And so it is.

But many of the others are well worth your attention—even if you don’t write highly stylized mystery novels.

“1. Never open a book with weather.”

Now, most of my people don’t write books. But this rule works as well for speakers and writers of nonfiction as it does for novelists.

“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.”

Yes, even in a business context “the reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for”—if not people, then at least story. Some human connection. Give it to them as quickly as possible. In fact, start with it, weather be damned.

“2. Avoid prologues.”

Leonard warns against prologues because:

“They can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword.”

Many speeches contain prologues—the endless lists of people to thank, throat-clearing about insignificant stuff: “Thanks for coming out in this rain, folks.” (See rule #1.) Get to the point.

Watch yourself some TED Talks. No prologue there. The speaker dives right into the story, and you’re riveted. Don’t you want your audience to be riveted too? Do that: dive in.

“5. Keep your exclamation points under control.”

“You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.”

Especially in business writing, there’s really no place for that level of excitement.

But my favorite piece of advice—seriously, I love this so much I may have to embroider it on a pillow:

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

Right? But how do you know what part that is?

Well, what parts do you skip? For me, it’s lists. Sometimes writers try to disguise a list as a paragraph. Lazy, lazy writing. If it’s so important for me to know about each of these things, then tell me why. Don’t just list a bunch of brands, for instance, and expect me to be impressed. What did you do for each of those brands? How did you leave their companies different than you found them?

Of course, Leonard is thinking about fiction:

“Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.”

“I’ll bet you don’t skip the dialogue.”

Business writers don’t often deal with dialogue. But we do tell stories. Or we should. You don’t skip the stories. You pay attention—always—when there’s an emotional connection between you and the material. So do that. Always.

And if it sounds like writing, rewrite.

Your creativity called. It wants to be taken seriously. Join us.

Stephen Miller – not just a soulless drone; he’s also a speechwriter

When I saw Stephen Miller’s dead-eyed national TV debut a couple of Sundays ago, I shivered. Defending the Republican president’s Muslim ban, he looked like a balding seven-year-old—a soulless balding seven-year-old—reciting lines from a particularly heartless school play. Or as my friend the anonymous versifier behind the new blog TrumPoetry put it:

The henchman whose name is Steve Miller
Has the eyes of a serial killer
One’s inner self dies
After so many lies
And one’s heart has been left in the chiller.

I’ll have more about TrumPoetry in a few days. But today I want to talk about Miller. Because he’s not just a henchman with the eyes of a serial killer; The New York Times tells us he’s also—and, Reader, you may picture me gagging as I write this—a speechwriter. Currently Twitler’s speechwriter.

Stephen Miller & the speechwriter’s lot

Stephen Miller isn't just a soulless drone; he's also a speechwriterIt won’t surprise you to hear I am in violent disagreement with every word Miller writes, including (to repurpose Mary McCarthy’s comment about Lillian Hellman) and and the. But I’m not here to discuss the substance of his speeches. Instead, I want to highlight some things The New York Times said about his process.

Before joining the campaign, Miller wrote speeches for his boss Jeff Sessions. Born and raised in Alabama, and with an advanced educational degree—a J.D. from the University of Alabama—the lawyer Sessions has followed a very different path than the Republican president he and his erstwhile speechwriter now serve. Twitler doesn’t hold any advanced degrees, just a B.S. from Wharton’s undergraduate program. Sessions has that soothing Alabama drawl and a successful lawyer’s command of the English language; Twitler has…well, you know.

Imagine trying to write for both men. Impossible! You’d need to be part-impressionist, part-psychic. And that’s pretty much the job description for a good speechwriter. The Times tells us:

It is sometimes hard to tell Mr. Trump’s voice from that of Mr. Miller, who suppressed his own orotund speech to capture the president’s more visceral, off-the-cuff style.

This is Speechwriting 101, and Miller seems to have mastered it. The Times report continues, with a description that will seem all too familiar to my speechwriting colleagues:

Not that he has had much choice: As one of three or four staff members to fly around with Mr. Trump during the last few months of the campaign, Mr. Miller was summoned to speechwriting tasks by a bark of “Ready!” from Mr. Trump, who insisted on dictating practically every word — and laced into staff members who changed a word or inserted an overly complex policy point.

Here I feel almost sorry for the putz. I mean, if you’re going to hire someone who knows how to write a speech—let him write a speech. Don’t turn him into a human Dictaphone. Especially if your own command of the complexities of language and thought is…well, you know. It’s like if Pope Julius II had wandered into the Sistine Chapel and told Michelangelo just to lay down a nice coat of white. Eggshell finish, for easy cleaning.

Still, given the worldview articulated in Twitler’s speeches, perhaps we’re all better off not having them written in the most stirring and memorable way possible. The guy is probably happier with a nice coat of white, anyway. Here’s hoping Stephen Miller gets the job he deserves.

Click here to keep in touch—and I’ll send you my “$100,000 Writing Lesson” as thanks.

Better writing in your organization

Who wants to read better writing? Anyone who’s ever cracked open a corporate white paper or listened to an unfocused speech with no clear call to action, or tried to make sense of a mushy corporate values statement. In my admittedly unscientific survey, I think that’s pretty much everyone.

Yesterday, I left you with a multiple choice question:

What are you going to do about the epidemic of bad writing that eats your people’s time and slows down your organization?

a) hire a writing coach for my organization
b) hire some expert help to write for us
c) actually, both of those options look pretty smart

Not difficult to figure out which answer I think is the right one.

But whatever you do, if you’re wasting time and/or money on communications that don’t communicate, you need to do something.

If you don’t have a communications shop in-house, then start one. If you don’t think you have enough work to keep full-time communicators employed, then outsource the work. Find one or two great writers and put them on retainer, buying so many hours of their time each month. They’ll gain more knowledge about your organization and become even more valuable as those months pile up into years. If that seems like too much of a commitment to you, you can hire freelance writers by the project or by the hour. Whichever route you take, you’re headed to the world of better writing.

But do not—seriously, do not—grab a salesperson or someone from accounting who knows her way around desktop publishing and expect them to turn out sparkling, memorable communications. Just because everyone writes emails does not mean everyone can write something that moves people to action.

If you do have a communications shop in-house, congratulations! But maybe your dedicated communicators could benefit from a daylong workshop with an expert to help them look at their work from new perspectives.

It’s hard to keep your work fresh if you’re writing about the same issues week in and week out. Years ago, I found a headline in The New York Times that summed up this challenge wonderfully: “For the Clearest View, Use Someone Else’s Eye.” In fact, I wrote the first post in this blog about that article.

Better writing starts here

I’m tired of reading bad business writing, too—I have to read a lot of what my clients have churned out so I can unearth and repurpose the ideas buried in it. Honestly, some days there’s not enough caffeine in the world…92535-bennett2bink2bcoaching2blogo3

But while caffeine may be bad for us, learning is definitely good. That’s why I launched a Coaching & Development arm of my ongoing writing business: I help non-writers learn the principles of good business writing. I help good business writers become great. I help rising executives—the folks who don’t yet have the institutional support or budget to hire a speechwriter—learn how to communicate like the executives they deserve to be.

What attracts clients: “You don’t think like us”

“We love talking to you,” my anchor client told me yesterday. “Because you don’t think like us and you don’t talk like us.”

There’s nothing wrong with them; it’s not like their company’s culture turns them into robots. But they find it refreshing to have access to an outsider’s perspective.

That’s what I pride myself on delivering. It’s the promise implicit in the original name of this blog, which I took from a New York Times headline: “For the clearest view, use someone else’s eye.”

As for me, I’m always on the lookout for people who see things differently. Like the person behind this photo I found on Facebook, a British comedian named Phil Lucas. Does the artwork exist? It hardly matters; the sign alone is brilliant.

It’s easy to find people who think the way you do. Seek out the ones who think differently; your life and work will be richer for it.


“we are fellow Americans…”

This week’s issue of The New Yorker has a great exegesis of President-Elect Obama’s victory speech. (And yes, I know that word is usually reserved for religious texts.) But as great a night as it was, and as eloquent and moving a speech as it was – exactly what was needed at the end of a divisive campaign and the beginning of an era of historic change – for me, the most memorable speech-giving of the night happened an hour or so earlier, and half a continent away.

I did not vote for John McCain, but his concession speech was remarkable in its sincerity and humility. I can’t recall another concession speech in which the just-defeated candidate spoke so warmly and with such appreciation for the accomplishments of his opponent.

It reminded me of the John McCain I read about in a Vanity Fair article a couple of years ago*, talking in a speech about his imprisonment in Vietnam:

“Very far from here and long ago, I served with men of extraordinary character, honorable men, strong, principled, wise, compassionate, and loving men,” McCain told the students. “Better men than I, in more ways that I can number….Some of them were beaten terribly, and worse. Some were killed….Most often, they were tortured to compel them to make statements criticizing our country and the cause we had been asked to serve. Many times, their captors would briefly suspend the torture and try to persuade them to make a statement by promising that no one would hear what they said, or know that they had sacrificed their convictions. Just say it and we will spare you any more pain, they promised, and no one, no one will know. But the men I had the honor of serving with always had the same response, ‘I will know. I will know.’

“I wish that you will always hear the voice in your own heart, when you face hard decisions in your life, to hear it say to you, again and again, until it drowns out every other thought: ‘I will know. I will know. I will know.’ ”

If that John McCain had run in this election, the outcome would have been far closer – and perhaps not to my liking.

But at least that John McCain showed up on Election Night, to try to heal some of the divisions he and his campaign team exacerbated, and to point the way forward for us. The New York Times transcript captured it like this: ” ‘Whatever our differences, we are fellow Americans. And please believe me when I say no association has ever meant more to me than that.’ (Cheers, applause.)”

*Unfortunately, the Vanity Fair web site only carries an extract of this article. Look it up in the original mag – “Prisoner of Conscience” by Todd S. Purdum, February 2007.

Perspective: Someone else’s eye

I keep a bunch of papers handy on my desk. Bits of inspiration – personal and business-related. One of the largest is a Xerox of an article from The New York Times, dated Thursday April 3, 2003.

It’s not the kind of thing I would have sought out in the paper – the article is about gardening, a subject that interests me only when I’m signing for floral deliveries. (Otherwise, just thinking about it makes me sneeze.) But the headline stopped me in my tracks. It summed up everything I’ve learned about why clients need to hire writing consultants like me, how we help them: “For the Clearest View, Use Someone Else’s Eye.”

Here’s how writer Ken Druse kicked off the article: “When things become too familiar, they have a way of disappearing, like a picture hanging crooked on the wall or car keys hiding in plain sight. Someone with a new perspective often sees what is invisible to me.”

I’m sure Ken offers great gardening advice; for me, his business advice is right on target.