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Thank you, Mr. Leonard

Photo: The Guardian

Elmore Leonard died today. You may know him from reading his books, or you may know him indirectly from seeing movies based on his books. His obituary in today’s New York Times contains plenty of book and movie references to show that you know more about Leonard than you think. (Here's the obituary)

Although he didn’t know it, Leonard is the source of the most important tip I give to students who take writing courses from me. His advice replaced what had always been my go-to writing tip: “Write like you talk, only better.” I stole that line from a writing coach named Paula LaRocque at a news writing seminar in 1986 at the American Press Institute in Reston, Va. At least I think it was from her. I sure stole it from somebody. No matter: The point is that I didn’t write the idea but rather just passed it along: “Write like you talk, only better.”

I could riff for a few hundred words about how student writers can put that concept into play almost immediately and become better writers. But I want to get back to Elmore Leonard.

I collect quotations about writing so I can use them in the classroom to make a point (and I make it a point to attribute the quotations). Somehow and somewhere, I found a great quotation by Leonard: “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” It’s a great idea. The name Elmore Leonard turned into a Sticky Note inside my head.

As good as that thought is, though, it’s nowhere near as great at the Leonardism that has replaced “write like you talk” in my classroom. In a 2001 essay he wrote for The New York Times,” Leonard observed, “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” (The essay is here)

The two most important concepts I introduce to young writers are time and sound. Leonard’s quotation is all about sound, about hearing your writing and knowing whether the voice is authentic. I don’t know if I’ll ever find more powerful writing advice. He packs a writer’s world into those eight words.

I don’t know Elmore Leonard from his books. Nor do I know him from movies made from his books. He has left a fade-proof writing maxim on his Sticky Note in my brain, though: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

I think most people will remember Leonard for his writing or from the movies that were based on his books. But I wonder how many other writing teachers and students have become better writers because of that one idea. That’s something we’re unlikely to see in any obituary, but it may be the most important part of his legacy.



( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 21st, 2013 01:00 am (UTC)
You've been kind enough to share some of your favorite quotes about writing with me, and they're always gems.

Thanks for the reminder about the "if it sounds like writing..." one, because it totally explains something that's been bugging me. During our recent staycation, I decided it was high time I got back into reading books for pleasure. I've spent so much time reading business stuff, website stuff, organizing stuff that I hadn't ready purely for pleasure in months. MONTHS! So I read two books during the week off. The first one was...difficult. I couldn't put my finger on it, but the quote hits the nail on the head: during the whole book, I felt like I was reading writing and it was not pleasant, not pleasant at all. The second book was so well written that I was effortless to read - it didn't read like writing at all.

Thank you for helping me figure out what the difference was!
Aug. 21st, 2013 02:37 am (UTC)
I hope the first book was short, anyway.
Aug. 21st, 2013 12:10 pm (UTC)
Not short enough.
Aug. 21st, 2013 02:39 pm (UTC)
"Write like you talk, only better" and "Try to leave out the part readers tend to skip" are my go-tos if I'm having trouble with a cumbersome news story.
Aug. 21st, 2013 02:47 pm (UTC)
Sometimes when we go to a meeting and it runs three hours, we feel to write a story that is the equivalent of a three-hour meeting (if that makes any sense). As a result, we write stories with—as you say—parts readers tend to skip. If you were to look at my clips file from my 22 years in the game, you'll see that's something I never figured out.

Anyway: the thing to do is (to steal a phrase again) "murder your darlings" and then use the time you've saved to work on another story.

( 5 comments — Leave a comment )

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