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.

The 80/20 Rule

I’ve been thinking of blogging about the 80/20 rule for a while. I’ve often wondered – if 80 percent of the work gets done in 20 percent of the time – what happens to the other 80 percent of the time? And how much could we get done if we worked the same way we did during the productive 20 percent of the time?

Sometimes I ask myself, “If I get nothing else done today, what is the one thing I want to accomplish?” If it’s an 80/20 kind of day, then that one thing is usually the 80 percent of the work that gets done in 20 percent of the time.

Earlier this week, the Globe and Mail published an article dealing with the same issue.

The 80/20 rule is formally known as the Pareto principle. According to that rule, 96 minutes – 20 percent of an eight-hour day – can produce “key results,” Harvey Schachter wrote in the Globe’s Report on Business.

When I stopped working, I had a plan for how I would structure my day. I thought it made sense to devote the morning to work-related tasks – setting up my blog, researching job opportunities, networking, and writing. I would do the most important things first.

But it didn’t turn out the way I’d planned. On the first Monday, I spent the morning and early afternoon with a friend who was visiting from out of town. It was the only time she was available. Three days later, I met another friend for coffee in the morning, the best time for her.

In between, I put in one very long day at the computer.

It’s great to have that kind of flexibility.

But on typical blogging days, I work on my blog and post it by mid-morning, sometimes earlier. Blogging is the “big” item on my to-do list on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays – the one I feel I must do regardless of whatever else I do or don’t do.

This week, I added another “big” item to my list. It’s been on my mind that I’ve been talking about writing a book, but haven’t actually worked on it recently.

I started very small, by adding “Work on book” as a daily reminder on my iPhone. I looked at the reminder for a few days in a row, but didn’t act on it. At least I was consciously aware of it. The other day, I decided to start small, writing on my laptop in the kitchen while my oat bran muffins were baking.

When the timer went off after 20 minutes, I took the muffins out of the oven, but kept writing. I didn’t put in 96 minutes, but I made a dent.

Blogging as ‘pseudo’-work

I’ve come to think of this blog as “pseudo”-work. I don’t get paid for it, and I’m not accountable to anyone except myself.

But it has some elements in common with my former job as a reporter for The Canadian Jewish News.

I have deadlines, albeit self-imposed. I’m still writing, although most of the content is generated in my head. I haven’t had to interview anyone, take notes, or do much background research.

I have two main areas that I write about, and I guess they are the equivalents of the beats I used to have as a reporter. On Tuesday and Thursday I write about moving on after being downsized, including thoughts on writing and journalism; and on Friday and Sunday I blog about food, specifically chocolate on Sunday.

However, as a blogger, my responsibilities are broader than they were at the paper. I’m not just the writer, I’m also my own assignment editor, proofreader, copy editor, and (groan!) techie. Food photographer, too!

When I was first thinking about starting a blog, someone told me it could eventually become a source of income. That’s not why I started it, but I haven’t ruled out the possibility. I’m also aware that some books, and even movies, have grown out of blogs. The book Julie & Julia, which was made into a movie starring Meryl Streep, is probably the best-known example. It began as Julie Powell’s day-by-day account of cooking her way through Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

I started my blog because some deep instinct told me that blogging would take me to whatever is next in my life, whether it’s because writing helps me clarify my thoughts, or because something about the blog itself would lead or point me in a particular direction. Time will tell.

Blogging, four weeks in

For the past four weeks, posting my blog has been my priority on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday mornings.

Now, almost seven weeks since I stopped working, the blog has become central to my post-work life. In my first entry, I wrote that I was starting the blog as a way to keep writing, bring structure to my day, and figure out – or evolve into – what’s next in my life.

I think it’s done that, and more. Continuing to write on a regular basis is important to me. I didn’t set out to write every Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, but that’s how it worked out the first week. The schedule suits me, and knowing that I’m not posting at whim reassures me that I won’t let too much time go by without writing.

The type of writing I’m doing for my blog also helps clarify my thoughts – an important part of figuring out what’s next in my life.

Another bonus – because Friday is “food” day on the blog – is that I’m more focused on cooking than I might be otherwise. It’s fun, and we’re eating well at my house.

Lastly, the blog has helped me feel connected to friends, family and others who read what I write and provide feedback.

I’m thinking of adding a fourth day.


Cutting through jargon

Recently, I began to examine job postings on LinkedIn and other websites as an exercise in defining what type of work appeals to me – and what doesn’t. I also want to figure out what employers are looking for that I have to offer, as well as what skills I should consider upgrading.

To my surprise, I found that the first thing to appeal to me – or turn me off –  was the language used in the job descriptions, not the jobs themselves.

The admittedly small sample I looked at included a few examples of fresh, clear writing that contrasted sharply with jargon I saw elsewhere. An ad seeking a “rockstar storyteller” captured my attention, as did one that specified “a can-do person who loves what they do.” I even found an ad that offered bonus points for finding typos that had been deliberately included.

Fresh, unambiguous writing is compelling and “real” in a way that jargon isn’t. To work in an environment that is similarly compelling and “real” definitely appeals to me.

Cooking and writing

My friend Brenda suggested that on my last day of work I cook a yummy dinner and surround myself with family. Coincidentally, that’s exactly how things played out on the day I learned I’d lost my job as a reporter at The Canadian Jewish News. It was about a month ago, on a Friday, and I’d already invited my mom, my sister, and her family for Shabbat dinner. It turned out to be just what I needed.

Long story short, the president of The CJN had announced in mid-April that the paper would cease publication on June 20 – an apparent casualty of digital competition. But after a public outcry, the paper was saved in June. As part of a plan to ensure financial viability, the staff has been downsized. (The online edition can be seen at www.cjnews.com, and the print edition will resume August 1.)

I’m starting this blog as a way to keep writing, bring some structure to my day, and figure out – or evolve into – what’s next in my life.

I intend to blog about food as well as writing/journalism and career paths. Cooking, like writing, brings me pleasure and fulfils my need to be creative. Brenda’s prescription was therapeutic and enjoyable, and I want to indulge more often.

At the same time, I’ve started to network, look at work opportunities, and consider what it would be like to be self-employed as an alternative to a conventional full-time job. I’m also thinking seriously about writing a book.

But for now – to end, and begin, on a sweet note – I’m returning to the food theme. Our friends Sheldon and Marlene (who, like me, has a taste for chocolate) gave us the Baker’s Best Chocolate Cookbook many years ago as a gift. They were coming over for dinner on Saturday, so I pulled out the cookbook when I was planning our meal. I opted for something simple: Baker’s Classic Brownies. I also found an easy-to-prepare chocolate glaze online at http://www.food.com/recipe/lee-lees-famous-chocolate-sauce-for-ice-cream-19678.

With a small serving of vanilla ice cream, the rich, chewy brownie and warm chocolate glaze hit the spot.

chocolate brownie