Business Writing Tips from Elmore Leonard?

There’s nothing like a global pandemic to spur media consumption. At this point, I’ve binged almost everything from classics like The Sopranos (yes, I’d never seen it) to pop-culture kitsch like Tiger King to phenomenal new shows like The Queen’s Gambit.

I’ve also done some binge-reading as well. I’m a sucker for mystery and suspense novels with a soft spot for the works of Agatha Christie and Elmore Leonard. In digging deeper on Leonard, one can’t help but be impressed by his prolific output with over 70 novels, short stories, and screenplays spanning the genres of western, crime, and suspense. A whopping 26 of his works such as Get Shorty have been adapted for the screen. Leonard’s popularity is simple: his writing is easy to read. His lean sentences and spare dialogue engage and entertain the reader at a brisk pace.

Through the years, Leonard worked to distill these best practices into his now-famous 10 rules of writing. As a communication instructor at the Tippie College of Business, I am a collector of writing tips and best practices from a variety of sources from Anne Lamott to Stephen King. But this helpful advice is often grounded in the world of writing narrative fiction.

Leonard’s clear and concise style and knack for simple, strong audience engagement makes his advice useful for anyone trying to write an effective email, memo, or report. That’s why I’m going to attempt to contextualize Elmore Leonard’s timeless tips for the distracted, digital world we find ourselves working and writing in today.

[NOTE: Leonard’s original numbered rules are noted in bold text below with my business context following in italics. All quotes are from his 2001 New York Times column where he first introduced these tips.]

1. Never open a book with weather.

Often our emails and business communication open with padding such as “Hope this finds you well” or small talk about … the weather! These pleasantries are the professional equivalent of opening a book with the same. Join the ranks of those adopting the military writing practice of BLUF—Bottom Line Up Front—for emails and memos. Skip the fluff and get to the point ASAP.

2. Avoid prologues. More of the same.

This rule is reinforced by one of the most frequent edits I propose in my students’ business writing: delete the first sentence. Often what follows is much better and gets to the point quicker.

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

The business context for this dialogue-driven rule reminds us of another acronym, KISS—Keep It Simple, Stupid (or Smarty, if prefer niceties in your self-critique). Business writing is filled with people striving to credential themselves with complex words and phrasing. Keep your writing simple and your reader will keep moving through it. And when they do that, they’re more likely to take action.

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely.

At the risk of getting technical with writing terms, adverbs are useless. (Pesky English teacher reminder: Adverbs are those -ly words that often follow verbs with the idea of adding flourish. Spoiler alert: They do not.) As you strive to keep it simple, the adverbs can almost always go. If you need to add emphasis, pick a better verb.

5. Keep your exclamation points under control.

Our business texts and emails are often full of exclamation points in an effort to sound more laid back and human. Writing filled with multiple exclamation points reads as frenetic. These punctuation marks are aptly named. Unless you’re exclaiming, you don’t need them. As Leonard warned: “You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.” This piece is 976 words. I’ve used one exclamation point and I almost deleted it on five different occasions.

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

Business translation: Skip your internal jargon. Again, we think our use of technical terms and business-speak makes us sound smart. However, if your reader doesn’t know these terms (and they may not) you sound confusing. And when people are confused, they aren’t able to follow your next steps.

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

While we aren’t writing regional dialogue at work, we can get trapped in the region that is our office or workplace. Keep it simple and avoid internal terminology. Especially the acronyms. Again, not everyone knows these and what makes you feel smart could confuse someone else.

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

In your quest to simplify your writing, you can also avoid another common pitfall. We often feel the need to constantly define things (programs, plans, etc.) as we write. This adds additional layers of description that may not be relevant to what you’re trying to say.

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

Same as rule eight. You don’t need to define everything as you write.

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

It’s easy to knowingly laugh at this final rule but go check your inbox. For added humility, take a look at your sent emails. “As outlined previously … attached please find … pursuant to our discussion …” All of these things sound like the business communication we’ve received throughout our careers. But that doesn’t make them right. And it certainly doesn’t mean these phrases are engaging. As Leonard said of this rule, “My most important rule is one that sums up the 10. If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

Elmore Leonard may have intended these rules for writers looking to mirror his short-and-sweet prose and dialogue in their own work but I maintain that they can help you. You may not be writing about a heist in Detroit or moonshiners in Kentucky but you too are writing things every day that you hope people will read. Make it good and your readers will take action. And action is what Elmore Leonard excelled at.