Villing & Company

Elmore Leonard on Writing Copy

You may have caught in the news that pulp writer and Detroit resident Elmore Leonard died late last month. Even if you are unaware of his novels, you've likely seen an adaptation or two on the big screen. Steven Soderbergh's "Out of Sight" and Quentin Tarantino's "Jackie Brown" (based on "Rum Punch") are two popular examples.

Leonard, known as "Dutch" to his friends, started out writing westerns in the fifties. When the market dried up, he switched to crime fiction. He wrote with an informal, no-nonsense approach that rendered him invisible as a writer. As is common with bestselling authors, his artistic recognition didn't come until late in his life—a change he found more humorous than anything.

Leonard once published ten rules for writing good fiction that—in keeping with his light sense of humor—was intended more as a helpful list of tips than strict literary law. Even he admitted to breaking them. His rules are aimed at writing fiction, but since much of good marketing boils down to engaging storytelling, I think the overall essence is just as useful to ad copywriting. Rules 8-10 seem especially relevant. Anyway, here's his list:

  1. Never open a book with weather.
  2. Avoid prologues.
  3. Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue.
  4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said" . . .
  5. Keep your exclamation points under control.
  6. Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose."
  7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
  8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
  9. Don't go into great detail describing places and things.
  10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

Leonard explained that it all comes down to rule 10, the one that sums up the others. Applying this rule to marketing makes for more compelling stories sans all the cliches and obvious attempts at cleverness. We marketers are too guilty of this. If we instead attempt to tell and show only what matters to the audience, leaving out everything that gets in the way of that, we'll have a more potent message.

In the interest of rule 10, I'll stop here.

Filed Under: creative

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