15 October 2010 - 6:35 pm

Review: 10 Rules of Writing

10 Rules of Writing by Elmore Leonard

Anyone who has talked to me – or heard me talk – about writing books knows that I always start with one piece of advice: if you’re going to read one writing book, read three. Then I usually go on to say: there are lots of ways to write, and you need to find what’s best for you.

If I was going to recommend some writing books, Elmore Leonard’s wouldn’t be in the list. I had to think long and hard about this, but ultimately, there are many more useful places for you to spend your time and money.

I read it because a friend had borrowed it from the library and I could get through it in a lunchtime at work before she had to take it back. This is because of the first issue I have with the book: it’s very short. Yes, you get the ten rules of writing, but they’re a sentence or two each, and there is rarely any explanation given for why these are good rules to follow. There are some interesting pictures used to fill up the pages, but little substance.

I can nod and agree and fill in the gaps myself, but I’ve been studying writing for most of my life. Honestly, I’m not sure who this book is aimed at. Beginner writers are in danger of being bewildered by the statements and will wind up following them blindly, if at all. Experienced writers aren’t likely to find them of much value because they’re just surface rules.

And because there’s no notion about why they’re good to follow, there’s no hint about when or why it might be good to break them. As always with writing, breaking rules is just as important as following them, but you can only do that if you understand them first.

So, then we move on to the rules themselves. I will say that it is all good, solid advice. There are a couple of points that I don’t agree with (as hard and fast rules – with some explanation, context, or caveats, they would be fine). For example, Mr Leonard says not to use detailed descriptions. Some genres and styles of writing have this as a norm, so I don’t think you can apply this rule universally. In some writing, it fits the flow of the story rather than breaks it.

Context is king.

The rules themselves also overlap in a few cases. Take the description one – that’s actually two rules, one for characters and one for places and objects. Why split them up? Then there’s the last rule, the one we’ve stuck with the book long enough to reach: “Leave out parts the readers tend to skip.” Well, that covers several other rules which could have been rolled up into a single bundle.

So what you actually get is about 6 or 7 rules of writing.

Once you’ve got that far – to the end of Rule 10 – you should be at the end of the book. Right? Wrong. There’s more! At the back of the book there’s a whole splurge of information and advice about writing. It’s good stuff too, and explained better than most of the ‘rules’. Why these points weren’t made into rules, I don’t know. It’s great to have in there, but bewildering considering the construction of the book and its information.

I feel like somewhere in those pages, there is a good writing book hiding. Replace the pretty pictures with some explanatory text and you might just find it. Sadly, that isn’t what was produced.

Overall, I would advise you save your money rather than spend it on this book (I’ve only seen it in hardcover and therefore not cheap!). Borrow it from a library if you’re desperate to read it, but you’ll find many more useful writing books out there.

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  1. Meaghan says:

    Stephen King’s “On Writing” is my favorite of all writing books, I recommend that to everyone and keep rereading it over and over. Also, the NaNoWriMo book by Chris Baty, “No Plot, No Problem!” is actually quite useful to me all the time, even when I am not going all crazy and trying to WriMo. Thanks for the tip, this sounds like a bummer of a book.

    October 18th, 2010 at 12:29 pm

  2. Mel says:

    Hi Meaghan! Thanks for commenting.

    King’s ‘On Writing’ is one of the reasons I tell people to read more than one writing book. It’s good, but there’s more options out there! One day I’ll get around to doing a review of that one, too.

    I do like Chris Baty’s book! Fun and practical. Well worth a look, even if, like you said, it’s not NaNo right now.

    October 18th, 2010 at 2:37 pm