Writing Mini-Lessons: The Rule of Write about a Pebble
“Say it, no ideas but in things.”
~ William Carlos Williams
This mini-lesson grew out of a writing conference writing guru, Nancie Atwell, had with a student who had a brilliant concept that was not coming to fruition in his writing. His idea was that small things we take for granted are rich and interesting. His intention was inventive, but his writing missed the mark by focusing on his chosen small thing, pebbles, in general rather than on one specific, identifiable pebble. Thus was born “The Rule of Write about a pebble. This rule is about writing concrete details and writing from observed experiences so that each piece you write is evocative and provides the reader with a “being there” experience. Poet William Carlos Williams instructed thus: “Say it, no ideas but in things.”
More specifically, keep the following things in mind to follow “The Rule of Write about a Pebble” as you conceive topics and begin drafting:
Don’t write about a general idea or topic; write about a specific, observable person, place, occasion, time, object, animal, or experience. Its essence will lie in the sensory images the writer evokes: observed details of sight, sound, smell, touch, taste; and strong verbs that bring the details to life.
Don’t write about ____________ . Write about a ____________ .
Don’t write about pebbles. Write about a pebble.
Don’t write about fall. Write about this fall day. Go to the window; go outside.
Don’t write about sunsets. Write about the amazing sunset you saw last night.
Don’t write about dogs or kittens. Observe and write about your dog, your kitten.
Don’t write about friendship. Write about your friend, about what he or she does to be a good friend to you.
Don’t write about love. Write specifically about someone or something you love: these are the greatest love poems.
Don’t write about sailing. Remember and write about a time you went sailing.
Don’t write about babies. Write about your baby sister, your baby cousin.
Don’t write about reading. Write about your experience reading one book.
Don’t write about pumpkins. Write about the pumpkin you carved last night, the pumpkin you grew from seeds, your family’s jack-o’-lantern that the cruel high school boys smashed on the road.
Below is the first draft of Ms. Atwell’s student’s poem:
a quiet innocent little thing
that comes in all shapes and sizes.
That you find on the beach
outdoors or on your floor
but you think it’s just another ordinary thing
but if you think hard, it’s something that’s
Where would all the beaches, sand, and
gravel driveways be if it weren’t
for that one tiny quiet innocent
After reading this poem, Ms. Atwell conferenced with the student to determine his intention as a writer. He shared that he believed that pebbles and blades of grass and other small things we don’t think much about are taken for granted, but they are also important. Ms. Atwell responded by saying, “That’s an interesting theme. Here’s the problem: as a reader, I’m not convinced by this draft. I can’t see or hear or feel these pebbles. I can’t think about them as important, as mattering, the way you want me to. Do me a favor. Go outside, find a pebble you like in the driveway gravel, and write about your pebble.”
Here is the revised poem:
Now I’m not talking
this one I mean–
in my hand,
like I did
Experiment with the Rule of Write about a Pebble yourself. Start by writing for ten minutes about the first image below.