10 writing lessons from the late Elmore Leonard

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Elmore John Leonard, Jr. was an American novelist and screenwriter. His earliest novels, published in the 1950s, were Westerns, but Leonard went on to specialize in crime fiction and suspense thrillers,

many of which have been adapted into motion pictures.

Among his best-known works are Get ShortyOut of SightHombreMr. Majestyk, and Rum Punch (adapted for the movie Jackie Brown). Leonard’s writings include short stories that became the films 3:10 to Yuma and The Tall T, as well as the current FX television series Justified.

Leonard passed away on Aug. 20, 2013.  His 10 writing lessons are among those I stress when i meet with aspiiring public relations students. The following is from Ragan’s PR daily. Read, digest and implement Leonard’s lessons.

By Jessica Levco | Posted: August 22, 2013 Ragan’s PR Daily

I wish I could say I learned a lot from Elmore Leonard when he was alive.

Unfortunately, I didn’t—until his 10 rules for writing went viral Tuesday after his death. He was 87.

The bestselling author wrote nearly 50 novels, including “Get Shorty” and “Freaky Deaky,” and solidified himself as a popular crime writer. Judging from Leonard’s list, he’d want me to skip the prologue about his life and get right to the writing advice.

So, here we go:

1. Never open a book with weather.

This is a good tip for conversations, too. I avoid conversations when I overhear people chit-chatting, “The weather’s great,” “Looks like rain,” and/or “It’s so hot out.” What makes a good story is that it takes you away from all that blah, blah, blah. Leonard says, “If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long.” Al Roker might disagree.

2. Avoid prologues.

All that intro stuff is going to bog down your reader (especially if you’re stuck on the weather). Get to the heart of the story—quickly. He’s OK with the prologue in John Steinbeck’s “Sweet Thursday,” but that’s because the main character is making valid points about what makes a good story. Plus, Steinbeck coins the word, “hooptedoodle.” You can’t go wrong with hooptedoodle.

3. Never use a verb other than ”said” to carry dialogue.

Dialogue should speak for itself. Leonard said, “said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied.”

“Indeed!” she erupted.

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb ”said”…

He said this sincerely.

5. Keep your exclamation points under control.

Leonard said you’re “allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.” A story riddled with exclamation marks makes you sound like a third-grader. Instead, use a semicolon; that will impress everyone.

6. Never use the words ”suddenly” or ”all hell broke loose.”

“This rule doesn’t require an explanation,” Leonard said. I agree.

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

I used to write for my hometown newspaper in southern Indiana. The best quote I ever got (and I can’t even remember what the story was about) was, “It feels like you’re watching NASCAR in the sky.” Ahh, that’s great. But if I started writing the way everybody talked to me, it would be a disaster. Leonard says, “Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apostrophes, you won’t be able to stop.” Yee-haw. (I wanted to put a half-dozen exclamation points at the end of that, but I stopped myself—suddenly.)

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

One main reason why books that are made into movies turn out so badly is that as a reader you had all these ideas in your head as to who each character was supposed to be (well, except for Colin Firth in “Pride and Prejudice”—he did just fine.) In “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway, Leonard says the reader sees “the couple and know them by their tones of voice, with not one adverb in sight.”

9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.

Same as the above. Keep it simple, and let the reader’s mind wander, “unless you’re Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language or write landscapes in the style of Jim Harrison,” Leonard said.

10. Leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

I love to read, but it’s true: I don’t read every word of a book. When you write, think like a reader. Think about what your eyes would gloss over. Leonard makes a pretty good wager: “I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.” True. Especially when they’re talking about NASCAR in the sky.

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Living in a college dorm

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My former Rowan University colleague Prof. Debra Nussbaum wrote in the Sunday, Aug. 19, 2013 The Philadelphia Inquirer ” College campuses have the perfect recipe for a spike in bad manners: Start with young people leaving home for the first time. Move them in with total strangers. Add alcohol (it happens). Then sprinkle in today’s technology and small living quarters.

Here’s the link:  http://www.inquirer.com/opinion/20130818_Civility_critical_to_surviving_dormitory_life.html

Says Prof. Nussbaum:

The rules for making peace with roommates are not much different from the basic etiquette that makes life better for everyone. To get you started this fall, try these tips from local students and Rutgers University roommate agreements:

  • If you make a mess, clean it up.
  • Decide ahead of time what you will share, who will buy what, and when guests are allowed.
  • Talk about volume on movies and music, and about your schedules. If you have an 8 a.m. class on Wednesdays or a 6 a.m. practice, let your roommate know.
  • Don’t use social media to air your complaints.
  • Be honest and talk to your roommate when something bothers you.
  • Don’t bring a pet to the apartment without getting your roommate’s permission (yes, this really happened).
  • Living with your best friend doesn’t always work out.

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From Inc.com — 10 Things Extraordinary Bosses Give Employees

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By Jeff Haddon


According to Jeff, “Good bosses care about getting important things done. Exceptional bosses care about their people.”

1. Autonomy and independence.

Great organizations are built on optimizing processes and procedures. Still, every task doesn’t deserve a best practice or a micro-managed approach. (I’m looking at you, manufacturing.)

Engagement and satisfaction are largely based on autonomy and independence. I care when it’s “mine.” I care when I’m in charge and feel empowered to do what’s right.

Plus, freedom breeds innovation: Even heavily process-oriented positions have room for different approaches. (Still looking at you, manufacturing.)

Whenever possible, give your employees the autonomy and independence to work the way they work best. When you do, they almost always find ways to do their jobs better than you imagined possible.

2. Clear expectations.

While every job should include some degree of independence, every job does also need basic expectations for how specific situations should be handled.

Criticize an employee for offering a discount to an irate customer today even though yesterday that was standard practice and you make that employee’s job impossible.  Few things are more stressful than not knowing what is expected from one day to the next.

When an exceptional boss changes a standard or guideline, she communicates those changes first–and when that is not possible, she takes the time to explain why she made the decision she made, and what she expects in the future.

3. Meaningful objectives.

Almost everyone is competitive; often the best employees are extremely competitive–especially with themselves. Meaningful targets can create a sense of purpose and add a little meaning to even the most repetitive tasks.

Plus, goals are fun. Without a meaningful goal to shoot for, work is just work.

No one likes work.

4. A true sense of purpose.

Everyone likes to feel a part of something bigger. Everyone loves to feel that sense of teamwork and esprit de corps that turns a group of individuals into a real team.

The best missions involve making a real impact on the lives of the customers you serve. Let employees know what you want to achieve for your business, for your customers, and even your community. And if you can, let them create a few missions of their own.

Feeling a true purpose starts with knowing what to care about and, more importantly, why to care.

5. Opportunities to provide significant input.

Engaged employees have ideas; take away opportunities for them to make suggestions, or instantly disregard their ideas without consideration, and they immediately disengage.

That’s why exceptional bosses make it incredibly easy for employees to offer suggestions. They ask leading questions. They probe gently. They help employees feel comfortable proposing new ways to get things done. When an idea isn’t feasible, they always take the time to explain why.

Great bosses know that employees who make suggestions care about the company, so they ensure those employees know their input is valued–and appreciated.

6. A real sense of connection.

Every employee works for a paycheck (otherwise they would do volunteer work), but every employee wants to work for more than a paycheck: They want to work with and for people they respect and admire–and with and for people who respect and admire them.

That’s why a kind word, a quick discussion about family, an informal conversation to ask if an employee needs any help–those moments are much more important than group meetings or formal evaluations.

A true sense of connection is personal. That’s why exceptional bosses show they see and appreciate the person, not just the worker.

7. Reliable consistency.

Most people don’t mind a boss who is strict, demanding, and quick to offer (not always positive) feedback, as long as he or she treats every employee fairly.

(Great bosses treat each employee differently but they also treat every employee fairly. There’s a big difference.)

Exceptional bosses know the key to showing employees they are consistent and fair is communication: The more employees understand why a decision was made, the less likely they are to assume unfair treatment or favoritism.

8. Private criticism.

No employee is perfect. Every employee needs constructive feedback. Every employee deserves constructive feedback. Good bosses give that feedback.

Great bosses always do it in private.

9. Public praise.

Every employee–even a relatively poor performer–does something well. Every employee deserves praise and appreciation. It’s easy to recognize some of your best employees because they’re consistently doing awesome things.  (Maybe consistent recognition is a reason they’re your best employees? Something to think about.)

You might have to work hard to find reasons to recognize an employee who simply meets standards, but that’s okay: A few words of recognition–especially public recognition–may be the nudge an average performer needs to start becoming a great performer.

10. A chance for a meaningful future.

Every job should have the potential to lead to greater things. Exceptional bosses take the time to develop employees for the job they someday hope to land, even if that job is with another company.

How can you know what an employee hopes to do someday? Ask.

Employees will only care about your business after you first show you care about them. One of the best ways is to show that while you certainly have hopes for your company’s future, you also have hopes for your employees’ futures.


JEFF HADEN learned much of what he knows about business and technology as he worked his way up in the manufacturing industry. Everything else he picks up fromghostwriting books for some of the smartest leaders he knows in business.

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Weaning yourself off plastic

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This appeared some time ago in The Philadelphia Inquirer:

Rodale’s editors blogged, and got many outside comments and tips, at www.rodale.com/plastic-free.

Their muse was Beth Terry, a Californian who since 2007 has been lessening her plastic use. She blogs and offers numerous insights at www.myplasticfreelife.com (an excellent website).

Emily’s main advice is to start by amassing all the plaastic you use in a week. Analyze it. there is probably a lot of packaging you could eliminate. More specific types from the group:

  • Carry your own cutlery. Skip single-use items.
  • Use metal or glass food storage containers.
  • Wrap lunch sandwiches in waxed paper.
  • Try laundry detergent powders that come in a box.
  • Carry reusable shopping bags.
  • Carry a reusable bottle, or buy drinks in glass or aluminum.

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