Eudora Welty's Rules for Writing

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

The Pulitzer-winning Southern writer, a master of the short story, would have been 107 years old today. Welty was the author of nearly 20 books, a skilled photographer, and an avid gardener. Humanities magazine has a compelling sketch of her work:


Her three avocations—gardening, current events, and photography—were, like her writing, deeply informed by a desire to secure fragile moments as objects of art. … She appears to see the people in her pictures as objects of affection, not abstract political points. … What Welty seems to say, without quite saying so, is that the best pictures and stories cannot simply reduce the creatures within their spell to specimens. True engagement requires a durable sympathy with the world.

I haven’t read much of Welty’s writing yet, but based on her essay “The Reading and Writing of Short Stories”—published in the February and March 1949 issues of The Atlantic—I have a feeling I should. The complete essay hasn’t been digitized, but you can read an excerpt here. Among her snippets of wisdom:

  • “Every good story has mystery—not the puzzle kind, but the mystery of allurement.”
  • “The great stories of the world are the ones that seem new to their readers on and on, always new because they keep their power of revealing something.”
  • “Beware of tidiness.”
  • “Beauty comes from form, from development of idea, from after-effect. It often comes from carefulness, lack of confusion, elimination of waste—and yes, those are the rules.”

But don’t follow the rules too closely. To quote Welty again: “Sometimes spontaneity is the most sparkling kind of beauty.” She put those ideas into practice in more than a dozen stories for The Atlantic, but because of copyright, only one of them is digitized thus far: “A Worn Path,” from our February 1941 issue. It’s a short story about an elderly African-American woman who travels down a country road to retrieve medicine for her grandson.