Writerly Advice: Stegner’s Seven Rules of Writing

Wallace Stegner is perhaps the best short story and novel writer you’ve never heard of – even more unusual for you AZ students, perhaps, because he wrote often of the Southwest. His novel Angle of Repose won the 1971 Pulitzer Prize. Another, The Spector Bird, won the National Book Award in 1977. His short stories were collected in 1990; three of them won O. Henry Prizes. (His literary agent at the time infamously told him to quit writing short stories before he used up all his “openings and closings” – sadly, Stegner followed her advice).

220px-Wallace_Stegner

Wallace Stegner

Most importantly for us creative writers, Stegner founded the Stanford Writing Program in 1945 (I’ve heard it said mostly in response to his objection to what he considered harsh techniques employed at Iowa Writer’s Workshop). He continued to teach at Stanford until his retirement in 1971. Graduates of that Stanford MFA program include Wendell Berry, Edward Abbey, Harriet Doerr, Tillie Olsen, Raymond Carver and Larry McMurtry. Stanford carries on Stegner’s legacy with the Wallace Stegner Fellowship, a prestigious award and position given out to writers at all stages of their career, without degree requirements or concern for genre. If you’re serious about your writing, view the link above and maybe set a goal for yourself.

Stegner “came of age” in an era when not many people thought you could teach or be taught creative writing (a good blog subject in and of itself?). In his short book On Teaching and Writing Fiction, Stegner offered these seven “rules of thumb” for writers (pp. 94-95):

  1. Start in the middle of things; start in motion.
  2. Stay in motion by not letting the summary intrude; keep the summary feeding into the scene in hints and driblets, by what Ipsen called the “uncovering” technique.
  3. Never explain too much; a reader is offended if he cannot participate and use his mind and imagination, and a story loses much of its suspense the moment everything is explained.
  4. Stay out of your story; pick a point of view and (especially in the short story) stick with it. Nobody has less right in your story than yourself.
  5. Don’t show off in your style. The writing should match the characters and the situation, not you. This applies as well to obscenity and profanity as to other matters. Where character and situation call for them, they belong; elsewhere they may be a sign that the author is trying to catch someone’s attention.
  6. Nothing is to be gained, except a breaking of the dramatic illusion, by attempts to find substitutes for the word “said” in dialogue tags. “Said” is a colorless word that disappears; elegant variations show up.
  7. Stopping a story is as hard as saying goodnight. Learn to do it cleanly, without leftovers or repetitions.

I suggest you print these out and hang them up in a prominent spot in your writing area.

I did.

PS. Stegner’s eighth rule? “Revise! Revise! Revise!” (He says the difference between a good writer and a great writer is their ability to revise their own work and make it better.)

Looking for more writerly advice? Come to our next Saturday Morning Workshop, tomorrow (10/13) from 10AM to noon. Jayme Cook talks tension, atmosphere, and genre writing.


This post was contributed by Gary Lawrence, one of GCC’s English and Creative Writing faculty. Gary teaches online CRW courses for us, including CRW170 (Introduction to Fiction Writing) and CRW270 (Intermediate Fiction Writing), both of which he’s prepping for Spring 2019. View his courses, along with our other CRW offerings, here: GCC Find-A-Class.

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