Orwell Award Announcement SusanOhanian.Org Home


Essential Rules for Writing

Posted: 2008-06-18

From The Believer, September 2006

From an interview with Padgett Powell by Brian J. Barr, music editor at the Seattle Weekly.

Rule 3 is particularly masterful.

BLVR: You’ve been employed at the University of Florida for twenty-plus years. In that time, have you developed any sound philosophy on the teaching of writing?

PP: In the beginning one admits he knows not what he is doing and is possibly effective. In the end one gets tired, begins to believe he knows what he is doing, and is not possibly effective. My regular approach these days is usage instruction followed by begging for coherence. If we get past those hurdles, we might look at what I call The Rules, and at Miss O’Connor’s dictum (in a letter to Hawkes): "The higher the fantasy of action, the more precise the writing, and that is the way it ought to be."

BLVR: The Rules? I’m intriguedâ€Â¦

PP: Rule 1 is The Gosling Rule. The story concerns the first thing the reader sees move. Rule 2 is that the problem, or the apparent and necessarily related problem, must appear soon, in the first paragraph if not the first sentence. Rule 3 is a complex function [wh = f(c1,c2,c3... + e + t)] involving withholding. Rule 4 is the bar test: everything must be said more or less as if you might say it to a stranger in a bar. Rule 5 is the doozie quotient. Rule 7 is the 3 Questions: Did it, could it, should it happen? Before any of these rules apply the writing must place itself unmurkily on the spectrum of credulity.

These rules are not of course actually in this or any other order. Twain’s early count of nineteen rules, some say twenty-two, etc., is a pretty good count that still holds up. Rules beget rules and you need to make sure some of them are sterile or you’ll have overcrowding and chaos in the pen.

More Commentaries

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of education issues vital to a democracy. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information click here. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.