Elmore Leonard’s famous writing rule

Last week, I read the news that novelist Elmore Leonard, probably best known as creator of Get Shorty, had died. He is also remembered for his 10 rules of writing, most notably, “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

Although I obviously never wrote dialogue – Leonard’s forté – when I was working as a reporter, I was very conscious of using quotes that didn’t sound “like writing.”

Sometimes I used quotes that originated in written form – statements from a press release, or comments made in an email. I also interviewed a few people who brought “scripts” to their interviews and asked if they could read me what they’d written instead of talking off-the-cuff.

But written statements that are used as quotations sometimes end up sounding like “fake” quotes, not the type of thing a person would actually say. Plus, they’re one-dimensional compared to face-to-face dialogue.

Direct quotes are important in reporting – they convey the subject’s exact words and his or her “voice.” They’re more immediate than a paraphrase. Well-chosen quotes can liven up an article. And they don’t sound “like writing.”

But even a “spoken” quote may not be ideal. People don’t always talk in coherent sentences. Or they may begin a thought, and veer off on a tangent instead of finishing.  Sometimes what they say makes sense when you’re hearing it, but it doesn’t “read” well. Or it may be unintentionally funny or ambiguous.

That’s why I never minded spending a bit longer than I might have on an interview, when it was possible. I wanted to ensure that I understood what was meant, not just what was said, and also to increase the odds that there would be good, usable quotes.

Although I hesitate to admit it, one of the trickiest bits of writing and rewriting that I’ve done was a little script I wrote for myself many years ago in preparation for a difficult phone call (personal, not work-related). After I’d reworked it to my satisfaction, I called a friend to run it by her. “That sounds good,” she said, not realizing I had actually read her my script. “Why do you have to write something?”

I didn’t even know that I had followed Elmore Leonard’s famous rule.