Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Lose the hooptedoodle

He's watching you.
The novelist and screenwriter Elmore John Leonard, Jr., passed away on August 20. His earliest novels, published in the 1950s, were Westerns, but he eventually specialized in crime fiction and suspense thrillers, many of which have been adapted into motion pictures.

In 2001 he outlined his ten rules of writing in The New York Times. They were about fiction, of course, but can we apply them to the more prosaic business of business writing? I think so.

For example, Leonard's second rule is: Avoid prologues. "They can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in nonfiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want."

It has come up enough in my experience to be worth mentioning: often the beginning of a nonfiction book turns into a scrum among the first chapter, an introduction and a prologue. Too much stuff that feels introductory or necessary for everything that follows. I follow a simple rule based on absolutely no evidence whatsoever, and that is that I don't trust the reader to read anything before chapter one. So if it's important, put it in something labeled a chapter.

Leonard's fourth rule is to never use an adverb to modify the verb “said.” Well, we can adapt that to: never use an adverb. Make your nouns and verbs do the work. Adverbs are for sissies.

Rule No. 10 is: Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. "Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue."

So can we all just jettison the hooptedoodle? You know it's there.

"My most important rule, Leonard wrote, "is one that sums up the 10. If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it. Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative. It’s my attempt to remain invisible, not distract the reader from the story with obvious writing. (Joseph Conrad said something about words getting in the way of what you want to say.)"

Let me rephrase that. If you've just written something, and you think you're ever so clever, and you're preparing your Nobel acceptance speech, delete it immediately before anyone sees it.

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