Elmore Leonard's 'Ten Rules For Writing' for design

Aug 29, 2020
Tags: design

Some time ago I read a reprint of Elmore Leonard’s ten rules on writing, which was initially published in 2001.

They are, abbreviated, as follows.

  1. Never open a book with weather.
  2. Avoid prologues.
  3. Never us a verb other than said to carry dialogue.
  4. Never us an adverb to modify the verb “said.”
  5. Keep your exclamation points under control.
  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 or things.
  10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

In my personal writing I’ve found some of these useful, even if they’re focused on fiction. The gist of all of them is that writing should serve the story, and you should use the utility of words themselves. That’s not to say that you can’t use the fullness of the english language, but if you’re telling a story, find a way to get the characters to carry the weight of the story.

Most of these rules can be applied to design work; graphic design, UI & UX work, and generally about building things with an intention and care, so that those things can used effectively.

Here’s how I interpret them for the design work that I do on a daily basis.

  1. Never open a book with weather. Avoid cliches. In the same way that the weather isn’t the story, a loading screen, or a fade-in on your website isn’t the website, it’s setting the tone that you can set by just getting to the website, experience, or “thing” that you’re building.
  2. Avoid prologues. Start where you need to, not where you want to. When designing, I interpret this as avoid walk-throughs, or zero-states, or embedded tutorials. Leonard writes that “A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want.” Similarly, a thing you want to teach the user can be dropped in anywhere - there are always hints, nudges, and ways to tell the user what they might want to do next. Don’t front load it because you can’t figure out where to put it.
  3. Never us a verb other than said to carry dialogue. Basically, let the function of your thing do the heavy lifting. In the same way the tone of dialogue is often enough to carry itself, the function of your design should be able to care its own weight without extraneous, and heavy-handed indication as to the real intention of the design.
  4. Never us an adverb to modify the verb “said." This is really just an extension of the previous rule, and a way to ensure clever writers or designers don’t use “said loudly” instead of “shouted.”
  5. Keep your exclamation points under control. This is another clever way of getting around the previous two rules. A shout is just a sentence with an exclamation point.
  6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose." Avoid cliches, and surprises for the sake of it.
  7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly. Your audience can anticipate, and hold certain concepts in their head without you spoon feeding them. Don’t do “simulated” things - transitions, useless movement, or animations.
  8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters. It’s easier for a writer to describe a character than it is to give the reader the fewest details possible so they can build the character themselves, but it’s also exhausting. When designing, give the user enough information to anticipate the rest of the design.
  9. Don’t go into great detail describing places or things. Let the function of your work carry itself.
  10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. The parts users tend to skip are parts with big descriptions from the author. When E.L. is writing fiction he likes to “to concentrate on the voices of the characters telling you who they are and how they feel about what they see and what’s going on” so he’s nowhere in sight. If the users are ignoring a part of your design, it’s not well done, or it doesn’t serve the entire work. Find a way to give the users just the basics, a way to care, or leave it out all together if it doesn’t serve the design as a whole.

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