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Writing tips from Elmore Leonard

By Michael Angelo Caruso

Not long ago, I met a 15-year-old who couldn’t spell “Wednesday.”

Around the time, the folks that administer the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) added an essay writing exercise to the exam. Many people were up in arms that students would be required to compose an essay in order to pass the test.

The reason 15-year-olds can’t spell is because they don’t write enough essays.

Elmore “Dutch” Leonard, is the author of more than three dozen books. Many of his books have been made into motion pictures including (Get Shorty) and TV shows (Justified). Mr. Leonard used to live a few miles from me, has published his rules of the writing game.

I’ve formatted his terrific tips as 5 Cool Ideas for better writing.

1 “Avoid prologues.” Life is short. Get on with it. Help your readers to do the same. Getting on with the message or story is also a great way to avoid writer’s block. Launch right into the action and your writing will not stall in the “blank page” phase.

2 “Never open a book with weather.” For that matter, never open a memo with “…pursuant of our agreement.” When writing, it’s important to get to the good stuff right away. There’ll be a good time to mention whether it’s cloudy or sunny. There will never be a good time to be “pursuant of our agreement.” While I’m thinking of it, use “daily” rather than “on a daily basis.” There, I feel better.

3 “Never use a verb other than ‘said’ [for dialog].” This seems like a style preference to me, but simpler is almost always better, right? When writing dialogue, try to write the exact way people talk. Use contractions and incomplete sentences, if appropriate. This is a great way to give dimension to your characters.

4 “…leave out the parts that readers skip.” Edit ruthlessly. Always try to say it in fewer sentences, with fewer words, using fewer syllables. Use a varied rhythm to discourage readers from skipping parts. Try a short sentence. Then, add a more complex sentence that includes an imbedded phrase or a combination of ideas.

5 “If it sounds like writing, rewrite it.” The best writing is rewriting. Always rewrite important e-mails, blogs, reports, and letters. Your message will improve with each revision. Speeches and presentations benefit from rewrites, too. Here’s a cool rewrite technique for you.

Most people re-write based on how words look. Read aloud what you’ve written and make changes based on how the words sound. Have someone else read it aloud and his or her interpretation will give you more ideas on how to improve your writing.

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