There Are Three Rules for the Writing of a Novel

W. Somerset Maugham? Oscar Wilde? Mark Twain? Bret Harte? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: With the rapid growth of ebooks it seems that everyone is writing a book. Here is the funniest advice I have heard on this topic:

There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.

Several prominent authors have offered writing advice in the form of three rules. Could you explore the background of these sayings?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI of this comical piece of non-advice was published in a 1977 volume providing guidance to neophyte authors titled “Maybe You Should Write a Book” by Ralph Daigh. This volume was not designed to teach the reader how to write, and Daigh illustrated that point with the following anecdote:[ref] 1977, Maybe You Should Write a Book by Ralph Daigh, Quote Page 7, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. (Verified on paper)[/ref]

Somerset Maugham is credited with summing it all up when in addressing a friend’s class on English literature he was asked by a student how to write a novel.

Maugham’s answer was:
“There are three rules for the writing of a novel.
“Unfortunately no one knows what they are.”

Popular author, Maugham, died in 1965, so the documentation for this attribution is not ideal. Perhaps future discoveries will provide further substantiation.

Further below, this article will discuss writing advice that has been attributed to the prominent authors Bret Harte, Mark Twain, and Oscar Wilde. In each case the guidance utilized a three-fold structure. The article will also present several variants of the quotation credited to Maugham in domains such as: politics, moviemaking, and aviation. Immediately below, an antecedent of the jest in the realm of card games is discussed.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

A precursor to the quote based on another set of missing rules appeared in a discussion of a game called Bumblepuppy in “Notes and Queries” in 1866:[ref] 1866 October 6, Notes and Queries: A Medium of Inter-Communication for Literary Men, General Readers, Etc., BUMBLEPUPPY by John Davidson (Postscript), Quote Page 275, Published at the Office of Notes and Queries, London. (Google Books full view) link [/ref]

If you want the rules of Bumblepuppy you must invent them yourself, for I believe no one knows what they are. I have often made inquiries about the game at the ‘The Dublin Man-of-War,’ and invariably I have discovered that nothing is known about it, except that its name is Bumblepuppy, and that it influences to a certain, or rather uncertain extent, the absorption of beer.

The name of the inventor is lost (if he ever had one); but the people of Ewell rather hold to the opinion that it never had an inventor, and I am under the impression that they believe it to have come down from the clouds, and taken up its abode at ‘The Dublin Man-of-War’ as a mystery on a large scale,—a thing touching which history says nothing, and which can only be defined as an unfathomable thingummy.

An 1880 work offered the following characterization of bumblepuppy evincing exasperation, and the word was included in “The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia” in 1906:[ref] 1880, Whist; or Bumblepuppy? Ten Lectures Addressed to Children by Pembridge, Lecture I: Introductory, Quote Page 1, William Whiteley, Printer, London. (Google Books full view) link [/ref] [ref] 1906, The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia, (In Ten Volumes: Volume 1), Entry: bumblepuppy, Quote Page 719, Published by the Century Co., New York. (Google Books full view) link [/ref]


Bumblepuppy is persisting to play Whist, either in utter ignorance of all its known principles, or in defiance of them, or both.

Bret Harte was a prominent American author and the editor of the periodical “Overland Monthly”. In 1915 one of the magazine contributors published by Harte told an anecdote about him that presented Harte’s tripartite instructions for writing:[ref] 1915 June, The American Magazine, Volume 79, Number 6, Interesting People: A Seventy-six-year-old Woman Reporter by Bertha Snow Adams, (Profile of Josephine Clifford McCrackin), Start Page 51, Quote Page 51 and 52, The Phillips Publishing Co., New York. (Google Books full view) link [/ref]

“Soon after I determined to make writing my profession, my mother came to me and said very solemnly:
“‘Josephine, you must ask Mr. Harte what books you should read to acquire a perfect style.’
“Accordingly I ventured into the editorial sanctum and said as solemnly as my mother had done:

“‘Mr. Harte, what books shall I read to acquire a perfect style?'”
“‘Oh, lord!’ he groaned, swinging around in his chair, ‘for pity’s sake, don’t read anything! Just write! Write! Write!’

In 1916 an article in “The Editor: The Journal of Information for Literary Workers” credited Mark Twain with writing advice that was comparable to Harte’s given above. Twain died in 1910, and QI has been unable to find any additional substantive support for the Twain attribution:[ref] 1916 October 7, The Editor: The Journal of Information for Literary Workers, The Steps in Composition by Paxton Simmons, Start Page 319, Quote Page 319, Published by The Editor Company, Ridgewood, New Jersey. (Google Books full view) link [/ref]

Mark Twain’s dictum that there are but three rules for writing, namely, first, write, second, write, third, write, is an excellent rule based upon the soundest judgment. It is not, however, complete, for it tells nothing of how to write.

In 1917 the admonishment ascribed to Twain was printed in “The Inland Printer”:[ref] 1917 December, The Inland Printer, Volume 60, Number 3, Efficiency The Watchword by Ernest Mowrey, Start Page 335, Quote Page 336, Column 1, Published by The Inland Printer Company, Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books full view) link [/ref]

Mark Twain had three rules for writing. The first was “Write,” the second was “Write” and the third was “Write.”

In 1930 the daughter of the prominent English playwright Henry Arthur Jones published a biography of her father. The dramatist Jones was the target of a barb from the famous wit Oscar Wilde, but Jones enjoyed sharing the joke with others. The format of the quip was tripartite advice from Wilde:[ref] 1930, Taking the Curtain Call: The Life and Letters of Henry Arthur Jones by Doris Arthur Jones, Quote Page 156, The Macmillan Company, New York. (Reprint by Kessinger Publishing, 2006) (Google Books full view) [/ref]

He was very fond of quoting Oscar Wilde’s three rules for writing plays. “The first rule is not to write like Henry Arthur Jones, the second and third rules are the same!”

The comment ascribed to Oscar Wilde was included in an important 1946 biography by Hesketh Pearson. In the following passage “he” referred to Wilde:[ref] 1946, Oscar Wilde: His Life and Wit by Hesketh Pearson, Quote Page 196, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Verified on paper)[/ref]

He had a poor opinion of contemporary dramatists. “It is the best play I ever slept through,” he said of a piece by Arthur Pinero, and of another playwright: “There are three rules for writing plays. The first rule is not to write like Henry Arthur Jones; the second and third rules are the same.”

In 1977 the jocular three-part writing advice was ascribed to Somerset Maugham as noted previously in this article:

There are three rules for the writing of a novel. Unfortunately no one knows what they are.

In 1980 “The Quotable Quotations Book” included the saying attributed to Maugham and cited the 1977 book by Ralph Daigh that is also listed in this article.[ref] 1980, The Quotable Quotations Book, Compiled by Alec Lewis, Section: Literature: The Novel, Quote Page 153, Thomas Y. Crowell, New York. (Verified on paper)[/ref]

In April 1980 a book reviewer in the Los Angeles Times evaluated “The Quotable Quotations Book” and reprinted the quip credited to Maugham. However, the quotation was streamlined: “the writing of a novel” was changed to “writing a novel”:[ref] 1980 April 20, Los Angeles Times, Book Notes: ‘Little Gloria’ and How She Grew by Dick Lochte, (Short Review of “The Quotable Quotations Book” compiled by Alec Lewis), Quote Page N2, Los Angeles. (ProQuest)[/ref]

W. Somerset Maugham uttered, “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

In May 1980 the joke was refashioned and applied to the domain of show business:[ref] 1980 May 29, Christian Science Monitor, Section: ARTS: Television Preview, Harlem as it never was by Arthur Unger, Quote Page 19, Boston, Massachusetts. (NewsBank Access World News)[/ref]

“There are three rules for success in show business,” said Frank Schiffman, the late owner of New York’s Apollo Theater in Harlem. “Unfortunately,” he confided, “nobody knows what they are. . . .”

In August 1980 the saying ascribed to Maugham was printed in the Los Angeles Times with a new phrasing:[ref] 1980 August 17, Los Angeles Times, Soft cover by George Warren, Quote Page O6, Column 4, Los Angeles. (ProQuest)[/ref]

“There are three rules for the writing of novels,” Somerset Maugham once told a writing class. “Unfortunately, nobody has the slightest idea what they are.”

In 1982 the quotation was altered and transferred to the educational domain. In the following passage “Dr. Hutchins” probably referred to Robert Maynard Hutchins who was a prominent educator and President of the University of Chicago:[ref] 1982 December 05, Seattle Daily Times, “Who cares? Education needed to overcome euphoria” by Stanley Kramer, Quote Page A-24, Seattle, Washington. (GenealogyBank)[/ref]

I think it was Dr. Hutchins who said there are three rules for teaching: unfortunately nobody knows what they are.

In 1985 House of Representatives member Patricia Schroeder employed a political variant of the saying:[ref] 1985 January 27, Milwaukee Journal, Section: Accent On The News, National Scene: Democrats Look For Way Out Of Wilderness by John W. Kole, Quote Page 2, Column 4, Milwaukee. Wisconsin. (Google News Archive)[/ref]

“There are three things the Democratic Party must do if it wants to win the White House,” she said. “Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

In 1989 a version of the saying was credited to a high school instructor in “Cincinnati Magazine”:[ref] 1989 August, Cincinnati Magazine, Volume 22, Number 11, Between Us: Prize Catches by Felix Winternitz, Quote Page 10, Published by Emmis Communications. (Google Books full view)[/ref]

“There are three rules for writing an award-winning article,” my high school journalism teacher once confided in a somber, professional tone. “Unfortunately, no one has the slightest idea what they are.”

In 1993 a modified instance of the quotation was applied to the domain of aviation in “Flying” magazine:[ref] 1993 August, Flying (Flying Magazine), Volume 120, Number 8, Vectors: More Rules for Pilots by Len Morgan, Quote Page 108, Column 2, Published by Hachette Filipacchi Magazines, New York. (Google Books full view)[/ref]

There are three rules for making a smooth landing: Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.

In 2008 Clay Shirky, an influential writer about the internet and its societal implications, used a version of the saying tailored to the motion picture domain:[ref] 2008, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations by Clay Shirky, (Chapter: 11: Promise, Tool, Bargain), Quote Page 260, Penguin Press, New York. (Google Books Preview)[/ref]

There’s an old joke in Hollywood: “The good news is that there are three simple rules for making a good movie. The bad news is that no one knows what they are.”

In conclusion, the quotation presented by the questioner is credited to Somerset Maugham by 1977. This is rather late since Maugham died in 1965. But currently he is the leading candidate for creator of the saying. The advice for scribblers that repeats the word “write” three times probably should be ascribed to Bret Harte and not to Mark Twain.

The humorous remark attributed to Oscar Wilde was published in 1930, and Wilde died in 1900. The accuracy here depends on the separate biographers Doris Arthur Jones and Hesketh Pearson. The words were critical of Henry Arthur Jones, but he apparently repeated them. QI thinks the provenance of the quotation is not certain, but the assignment to Wilde is credible.

Jokes built on the template of three unknown rules are popular and variants have proliferated over time.

One reply on “There Are Three Rules for the Writing of a Novel”

  1. Greg Lloyd @roundtrip noted in a tweet on May 20, 2013 that the 1932 novel “Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley included a futuristic game called “centrifugal bumble-puppy”. Here is the description from the novel:

    The Director and his students stood for a short time watching a game of Centrifugal Bumble-puppy. Twenty children were grouped in a circle round a chrome steel tower. A ball thrown up so as to land on the platform at the top of the tower rolled down into the interior, fell on a rapidly revolving disk, was hurled through one or other of the numerous apertures pierced in the cylindrical casing, and had to be caught.

    The Oxford English Dictionary included the definition for another game called “bumble-puppy”:

    A game in which a ball slung to a post is struck with a racket by each player in opposite directions, the object being to wind the string entirely round the post; also, the post so used.

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