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A Writer’s Legacy Lives On in Columbia, SC

An email from Garrison Keillor’s Writers Almanac noted that October 1st was the birthday of crime fiction superstar Elmore Leonard and spelled out his 10 Rules for Good Writing.

I’m curious when a list of writing tips catches my eye.  What’s more, Leonard’s name was familiar, so I set out to learn more.

After a few mouse clicks, I discovered his famous 10 Rules for Good Writing right here in Columbia, SC, one document among many in the complete archive of his handwritten notebooks and manuscripts preserved on custom-made unlined yellow paper.  What’s more, his typed manuscripts and screenplays are here along with the typewriter and the desk that he used.

In 2013, Leonard visited Columbia from his home near Detroit to accept the Thomas Cooper Medal for his lifetime achievement as a writer who, over 60 years, published more than 40 novels, most of them bestsellers.   Adaptations of his books into dozens of movies and television shows include the 1995 film, Get Shorty and its 2005 sequel, the crime-comedy Be Cool, as well as Rum Punch, which became the film Jackie Brown.

The Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections in the Hollings Library at USC is the custodian for volumes of papers and artifacts from foremost writers including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, James Dickey and Pat Conroy among others.

During Elmore Leonard’s visit, he had the opportunity to hold in his hands and read works by two of his mentors, Hemingway and George V. Higgins.  Early in his career, his reading of Higgins’ novel, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, influenced his decision to abandon writing Western short stories and concentrate on the crime novels that made him famous.

His son Peter Leonard said, “That got Dad’s attention.  It really changed his outlook on writing.  Hemingway and Higgins were the two influences in my father’s life.”

Leonard died August 20, 2013, only a few months after his decisive visit to Columbia when he chose USC as the permanent home for his archives.

Here are Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules for Good Writing written in his own no-frills style.

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… he admonished gravely.

5.     Keep your exclamation points under control.  You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.

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.

He concluded, “My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.  If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

Many writers have created lists of their writing rules and had them published.  Here is a small sample that I found by searching the Internet.

·      “Be your own editor/critic.  Sympathetic but merciless!” – Joyce Carol Oates

·      “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.” ― Jack London

·      “Always carry a note-book.  And I mean always.” – Will Self

·      “Prose is architecture, not interior decoration.” – Ernest Hemingway

·      “Don’t tell me the moon is shining: show me the glint of light on broken glass.” – Anton Chekhov

Whether you are a writer, a would-be-writer or a seeker of writing wisdom, make a point to stop by the Thomas Cooper Library on the University of SC campus.  Researchers from around the world have discovered this treasure and may be there working on the next iteration of writing rules.

Susan Hendricks leads guided journal writing groups in Columbia as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Certified Journal Therapist and Certified Dream Group Leader.  To contact Susan and learn more, go to or

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