Naming agencies like Zinzin are a relatively new breed. We exist as a specialized creative service within the realm of branding, tucked within the wider world of marketing. However, back in the day (post-WWII, let’s say), it was more common for company or product naming to land on the desk of a copywriter at an advertising agency.
While naming is a unique creative process unto itself, this professional lineage makes sense. Arguably, naming is the shortest form of copywriting there is. Both practices require the ability distill big picture concepts into bite-sized bits of information that connect with people in a blink, to put it simply. But “simple” is what some copywriters love best.
Who was Elmore “Dutch” Leonard?
One such copywriter was Elmore “Dutch” Leonard, better known as a famous American novelist, short story writer, and screenwriter. He got his start as an advertising copywriter, as many tributes highlighted after his death in 2013. For instance, there’s a tribute called, “Elmore Leonard, Chevrolet Copywriter” by Bruce McCall in The New Yorker in which he says,
I’ve always maintained that my all-too-sustained advertising career never taught me a goddam thing about writing, but Dutch would claim that ad copy’s need for compression and simplification (you get in and out fast, so as not to bore or confuse or provoke second thoughts) helped thin out and tighten his prose. The evidence would suggest that he was righter than I was.
Leonard left us with a critically acclaimed body of work, including: Get Shorty, Out of Sight, Swag, Hombre, Mr. Majestyk, and Rum Punch (adapted as the film Jackie Brown). Leonard’s writings include short stories that became the films 3:10 to Yuma and The Tall T, as well as the FX television series Justified.
Especially known for his strong dialogue and pithy writing style, Leonard is also famous for his 10 Rules of Writing. Another tribute in 2013 by NPR, “Elmore Leonard, ‘The Dickens of Detroit,’ Dies at 87,” wraps up with rule number 10: “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”
Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing
Here is the complete list of Leonard’s rules, culled from The New York Times essay, WRITERS ON WRITING; Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle, from July 16, 2001:
1. Never open a book with weather.
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. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways to describe ice and snow than an Eskimo, you can do all the weather reporting you want.
2. 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. There is a prologue in John Steinbeck’s “Sweet Thursday,” but it’s O.K. because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: “I like a lot of talk in a book and I don’t like to have nobody tell me what the guy that’s talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks. . . . figure out what the guy’s thinking from what he says. I like some description but not too much of that. . . . Sometimes I want a book to break loose with a bunch of hooptedoodle. . . . Spin up some pretty words maybe or sing a little song with language. That’s nice. But I wish it was set aside so I don’t have to read it. I don’t want hooptedoodle to get mixed up with the story.”
3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated,” and had to stop reading to get the dictionary.
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” . . .
. . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances “full of rape and adverbs.”
5. Keep your exclamation points under control.
You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.
6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
This rule doesn’t require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use “suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.
7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apostrophes, you won’t be able to stop. Notice the way Annie Proulx captures the flavor of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories “Close Range.”
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
Which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” what do the “American and the girl with him” look like? “She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.” That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story, and yet we see 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.
Unless you’re Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language or write landscapes in the style of Jim Harrison. But even if you’re good at it, you don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
A rule that came to mind in 1983. 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.
My most important rule 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.*)
How does Zinzin apply Leonard’s rules to naming?
In his intro to the Rules, Leonard makes clear that the writing should take precedence over the writer. “These are rules I’ve picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I’m writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what’s taking place in the story,” he says. This is Zinzin’s philosophy as well. We invite you to read all about in our Naming and Branding Manifesto, specifically, No. 10: Show Me, Don’t Tell Me.
Incidentally, Zinzin has a namer/copywriter on staff. She can personally attest to the related, yet unique rigor that both copywriting and naming require. Even though she’s not secretly writing Westerns on yellow legal pads at her desk, she does have a love of “compression and simplification” (and a dislike of exclamation point-overload) a la Leonard. Her exception might be with his word hooptedoodle. That one’s begging for an exclamation point here and there.
Let’s wallow in the hooptedoodle
Sometimes, the best way to understand the value of rules is to break them and see what happens. So on that note…
Prologue: (🚫 2), let me first note joyously (🚫 4) what fine weather we’re having today (🚫 1). As our ace copywriter confessed (🚫 3) above, while we certainly share Leonard’s “compression and simplification,” some of us just can’t resist playing in hooptedoodle whenever we can! (🚫 5)
Would ye ruther we be ser’ous all the tyme (🚫 7)?
Admittedly, as I sit here in my parked Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme — watching a white-gloved police officer, blond curls peaking out from under her hat, right shoe slightly scuffed and the yellow stripe on her black trousers mimicking the yellow line bisecting the street, methodically directing traffic beneath the darkened stoplight — desperately trying to climb back aboard my train of thought (🚫 8,9), when suddenly (🚫 6), all hell broke loose (🚫 6)! (🚫 5)
Thank you for indulging us this little experiment, though it likely added nothing of value to this piece (🚫 10).
Rest in the power of words, Elmore Leonard.
* Joseph Conrad’s 1911 novel Under Western Eyes: “Words, as is well known, are the great foes of reality.” In the same novel, Conrad also has this to say about the power of “so many…mere words”:
- “To a teacher of languages there comes a time when the world is but a place of many words and man appears a mere talking animal not much more wonderful than a parrot.”
- “There must be a wonderful soothing power in mere words since so many men have used them for self-communion.”
Pit O'Maley says
He is so perfect for screen writers to admire with spare descriptions, driving the action by dialogue not speeding cars.
Henry MULLIS says
One of the Great Story tellers of the last 75 years.
Michael D Clark says
“Simple is better” he said.