Umberto Eco’s 36 Rules for Writing Well (in English or Italian)

Cre­ative Com­mons image by Rob Bogaerts, via the Nation­al Archives in Hol­land

Umber­to Eco knew a great many things. Indeed too many things, at least accord­ing to his crit­ics: “Eco knows every­thing there is to know and spews it in your face in the most blasé man­ner,” declared Pier Pao­lo Pasoli­ni, “as if you were lis­ten­ing to a robot.” That line appears quot­ed in Tim Parks’ review of Pape Satàn Aleppe, a posthu­mous col­lec­tion of essays from La Busti­na di Min­er­va, the mag­a­zine col­umn Eco had writ­ten since 1985. “This phrase means ‘Minerva’s Match­book,’ ” Parks explains. “Min­er­va is a brand of match­es, and, being a pipe smok­er, Eco used to jot down notes on the inside flap of their pack­ag­ing. His columns were to be equal­ly extem­po­ra­ne­ous, com­pul­sive and inci­sive, each as illu­mi­nat­ing and explo­sive as a struck match.”

At the same time, “the ref­er­ence to the Roman god­dess Min­er­va is impor­tant; it warns us that in the mod­ern world we may strug­gle to dis­tin­guish between divini­ties and bric-a-brac.” This was as true, and remains as true, in the realm of let­ters as in any oth­er. And of all the things Eco knew, he sure­ly knew best how to use words; hence his La Busti­na di Min­er­va col­umn lay­ing out 40 rules for speak­ing and writ­ing.

This meant, of course, speak­ing and writ­ing in Ital­ian, his native tongue and the lan­guage of which he spent his career demon­strat­ing com­plete mas­tery. But as trans­la­tor Gio Clair­val shows in her Eng­lish ren­di­tion of Eco’s rules, most of them apply just as well to this lan­guage.

“I’ve found online a series of instruc­tions on how to write well,” says Eco’s intro­duc­tion to the list. “I adopt them with a few vari­a­tions because I think they could be use­ful to writ­ers, par­tic­u­lar­ly those who attend cre­ative writ­ing class­es.” A few exam­ples will suf­fice to give a sense of his guid­ance:

  • Avoid allit­er­a­tions, even if they’re man­na for morons.
  • Avoid clichés: they’re like death warmed over.
  • Nev­er gen­er­al­ize.
  • Hold those quotes. Emer­son apt­ly said, “I hate quotes. Tell me only what you know.”
  • Don’t write one-word sen­tences. Ever.
  • Rec­og­nize the dif­fer­ence between the semi­colon and the colon: even if it’s hard.
  • Do you real­ly need rhetor­i­cal ques­tions?
  • Be con­cise; try express­ing your thoughts with the least pos­si­ble num­ber of words, avoid­ing long sen­tences– or sen­tences inter­rupt­ed by inci­den­tal phras­es that always con­fuse the casu­al read­er– in order to avoid con­tribut­ing to the gen­er­al pol­lu­tion of infor­ma­tion, which is sure­ly (par­tic­u­lar­ly when it is use­less­ly ripe with unnec­es­sary expla­na­tions, or at least non indis­pens­able spec­i­fi­ca­tions) one of the tragedies of our media-dom­i­nat­ed time.
  • Don’t be emphat­ic! Be care­ful with excla­ma­tion marks!
  • No need to tell you how cloy­ing preteri­tions are.

Not only does each of Eco’s points offer a use­ful piece of writ­ing advice, it ele­gant­ly demon­strates just how your writ­ing will come off if you fail to fol­low it. In the event that “you can’t find the appro­pri­ate expres­sion,” he writes, “refrain from using colloquial/dialectal expres­sions.” To this he appends, of course, a col­lo­qui­al expres­sion, Peso el tacòn del buso: “The patch is worse than the hole.” How­ev­er clichéd it sounds in Ital­ian, all of us would do well to bear it in mind no mat­ter the lan­guage in which we write. (And if you write in Ital­ian, be sure to read Eco’s orig­i­nal col­umn, which con­tains addi­tion­al rules apply­ing only to that lan­guage: Non usare metafore incon­gru­en­ti anche se ti paiono “cantare,” for instance. Sono come un cig­no che deraglia.)

You can read all 36 of Eco’s Eng­lish-rel­e­vant writ­ing rules at Clair­val’s site. If you’d like to hear more of his writ­ing advice, watch the Louisiana Chan­nel inter­view clip we fea­tured after his death in 2016. And else­where in our archives, you can com­pare and con­trast Eco’s list of rules for writ­ing with those drawn up by the likes of Wal­ter Ben­jamin, Steven Pinker, Stephen King, V.S. Naipaul, Friedrich Niet­zsche, Elmore Leonard, and George Orwell. Though Eco could, in his writ­ing, assume what Parks calls an “immea­sur­ably supe­ri­or” per­sona, he sure­ly would have agreed with the final, thor­ough­ly Eng­lish point on Orwell’s list: “Break any of these rules soon­er than say any­thing out­right bar­barous.”

Relat­ed con­tent:

Umber­to Eco Dies at 84; Leaves Behind Advice to Aspir­ing Writ­ers

Umber­to Eco’s How To Write a The­sis: A Wit­ty, Irrev­er­ent & High­ly Prac­ti­cal Guide Now Out in Eng­lish

Umber­to Eco Explains Why We Make Lists

Watch Umber­to Eco Walk Through His Immense Pri­vate Library: It Goes On, and On, and On!

Free Ital­ian Lessons

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

by | Permalink | Comments (3) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (3)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • ernie brill says:

    Thi­sis pret­ty dis­ap­point­ing. In the whole she­bang just­went through you dont even have a sin­gle African Amer­i­can’list of Impor­tant writ­ers. What cen­tu­ry are you l iving in? You have sparse to none exis­tent men­tion Asian Amer­ix­an, Lati­nAmeri­iveA­ca, NativeAm­er­i­can.
    If this is not bla­tant racis even by igno­rant con­stant omissin, I dont knowwhat else to say to you excpt offer you my annot­ted bibi­ographly all
    over the world

  • Ray Mercer says:

    Wel­come to the ’20s: Every illit­er­ate (check out the spellings and gram­mar of this guy) gov­ern­ment-school gulag-indoc­tri­nat­ed ne’er-do-well just can’t *wait* to be offend­ed. Well, you know what? I DEMAND to know where the left hand­ed, Eski­mo, hemo­phil­i­ac, six-toed writ­ers are; I’m OFFENDED there aren’t any on there! Can I count myself now as one of the per­ma­nent pub­lic whin­ers too?

  • Matt says:

    It’s weird how your idea of incon­clu­siv­i­ty only focus­es on US Amer­i­cans when 96% of the plan­et aren’t Amer­i­can isn’t it? Ie African Amer­i­cans but not Amer­i­cans, Native Amer­i­cans but not speak­ers of non-Eng­lish lan­guages.

    Nation­al­i­ty is as much a form of hier­ar­chy as race and your US/Anglophone cen­tric­i­ty is as much an expres­sion of that as any­thing else. For you only the world’s rich­est and most pow­er­ful coun­try counts and the oth­er 8 bil­lion humans can just f$$$ off.

    I think some priv­i­lege check­ing on your part might be required too.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.