Rule of 3 can help your writing

betty ming liu Writing how-to's 22 Comments

The earth pulses in three-beat rhythms. That’s why it helps to organize our writing around groups of three. When I tell my students this — especially the know-it-all adult writers — they almost always thumb their noses at the Rule of 3 (and at me).

Too formulaic, they say condescendingly. But after I push them to examine this law of nature, they are believers.

Rule of 3 provides a tripod for writers that is elegant, stable and dynamic. So when you’re structuring your story, report, mission statement, memo or speech, look for spots where threesomes might work:

Does your piece need a beginning, middle and end? Not all stories are told most effectively this way. But it works a lot.

Are you writing about a trend? Whatever your alleged trend is, present three examples and you’re in business. Two won’t do it. Of course, if you have more than three examples, you’re really on to something.

Do you want to make a convincing case? This is the secret to writing opinion columns and persuasive speeches. If you blather on for more than three key points, people start yawning.

What would be the most compelling description? The Rule of 3 works great for capturing defining details. What three phrases or key words would you use to describe an object, a person’s life, the taste of the perfect donut?

Rule of 3’s real power comes from forcing us to simplify. This is so helpful when we’re overwhelmed with information that we want to present. By looking for a three-point structure, we’re forced to examine our topic from multiple angles until we can get to its essence.

If you try organizing according to this principle, you will find yourself thinking and re-thinking about your subject matter as you play around with words, structure and ideas. That’s part of the process. It will take you to quite an enjoyable zone. And you’ll be in good company!

The three bears, the three pigs, the three Musketeers.

Three strikes and you’re out.

Act I, Act II, Act III.

Eat, pray, love.

Green light, yellow light, red light. 

Top, middle, bottom. 

Sun, moon and stars.

I’ll bet you can think of even more examples. If you do, please share with us.  :)


Comments 22

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    I loved teaching Rule of 3. Since I always made students read their work out loud, my favorite moment was watching them as they’d read and finally hear — with their own ears — just how beautifully they were expressing themselves. This happened to students aged 16 to 70. Yeah.

  2. Hi Betty! Just wanted to testify on behalf of all your students that the rule of three does, in fact, work like a charm. Last night, I wrote something up and read it aloud and was startled to see how everything had fallen into threes. And I hadn’t even thought about it consciously! Weird. Hope all’s well :)

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    Courteney! Just goes to show, it’s a natural rhythm to go in threes. Of course, it’s good to mix things up with a onsie or two-sie. I also really like the occasional long list of briefly-stated items in a story. The variety creates a nice rhythm too. I am indeed well. Hope you are too! P.S. — Also nice to hear that you’re reading your stuff out loud. :)

  4. Betty,

    Your timing is impeccable; I’m wrestling with a speech for this weekend. I am so applying this rule! tnx.


  5. Seconding (ha ha!) the Rule of Three, Betty. I remember learning this in writing classes, using it as a professional writer/editor, and now, I employ this maxim when teaching Yoga. As in “three instructions per pose…max.” Sometimes I do veer, admittedly, but the rule does help reign me in . ;-)

  6. Love this advice. I will bear it in mind. Last night I started class at NYU. Researching, Writing and Reporting the News with Jim Edwards. I am getting the certificate in journalism.

    Best, CL

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    Toby — thanks for bringing me some traffic. I’m honored to be of use to your staff!

    Chuck — three points on the speech and you’re done. You’re so articulate that I’ll bet you were naturally doing Rule of 3 and didn’t even realize it!

    Bria, I use the rule in my real life too. And deviating is part of the fun. After all, this is the Rule of 3 and not the Law of 3. Btw, three pillows grouped on a couch always look better than four. That’s my opinion!

    Charlotte, congrats on your new class. Very exciting!

    And if I seem exclamation point crazy today, maybe it’s because I’m having a very rare midweek day off. And I’m loving it!!! Now let’s see if I can apply Rule of 3 to writing a decent blog post for tomorrow. :)

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  8. Impeccable timing indeed.
    I am wanting to start a blog about pregnancy and childbirth (my passion) and was looking up some tips on writing when I decided to stop here and of course–Betty to the rescue!
    Yet another confirmation that I’m in the right company ;)

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      I’m so glad you stopped by. Thanks, Paris! And good luck on your new blog. I am going to guess that it lends itself to a three-pronged theme: pregnancy, childbirth and….motherhood maybe?

  9. A really useful refinement of this rule is 2-3-1. Put the most important/impactful thing at the end, the next most important at the start, the third most important in the middle. Eat, pray, love would be a perfect example (just try it in any other order). Works for the entire structure of a piece too.

  10. I just got the book I ordered over three weeks ago “The Three Deceivers -How today’s obsession with Control, Ownership and Independence are destroying the quality of our lives.” By Richard M. Eyre. It is an unusual book in many ways. One is the way which it is designed to be read. The first third of the book is about the three “deceivers” i.e. words that have become paradigms of modern life but which are not able to bring us lasting happiness. The second part whihc is about 2/3 of the book discusses the three alternatives. (I am not going to say what they are because THE READER is suppose to try and discover these on their own at the end of the first part.
    Then you flip the book upside-down and read from the back side (Eyer did something like this on his book “I challenge you- I promise you) This book was also written online a chapter at a time.
    Eyer also talks about Serendipity, which comes from a Persian fable. As the story goes… The three Princes of Serendip (modern day Sri Lanka) Each sets out to find his fortune. None of them actually finds a fortune, but each, thorough their acute awareness and perception, finds something better than a fortune. Love, truth and an opportunity to serve. They are able to make these discoveries because the notice things that other people have missed, and thus find unexpected joys and opportunities. Eyre is able to come up with three eleven letter words, that all begin with “S” in “The Three Alternatives”
    In math we have the rule of three which appears in cross-multiplication.It also appears in “The golden Rectangle” which has artistic appeal as well. The rule of three also appears in computer science and C++ programing. In Aviation, the rule of three applies to calculating decent rates.
    The christian “godhead” is of course three. Abraham had on average three children from each wife (the house of Israel being twelve Tribes)
    It would appear that the structure of the universe follows the pattern you have discovered!

  11. Betty,
    Come to think of it Mathematical Induction is a three step process:It is done by proving that the first statement in the infinite sequence of statements is true, and then proving that if any one statement in the infinite sequence of statements is true, then so is the next one.

    We can use this to prove that all numbers (or students) are interesting. The first number (or student) is interesting just by virtue of being the first. Then we say that all numbers (or students) are interesting up to some N. Then the N+1 number (or student who walks through the door) is not interesting. Well the fact that this N+1 number or person DOESN’T seem to have anything interesting about it. Well the fact that this number or person doesn’t have any interesting qualities and the others did, makes them HIGHLY INTERESTING. This violates our premise and proves that everything and everyone is interesting.

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    Jeannie, now that you mention 2-3-1, I recognize it as the structure you use in your speeches — which I have always loved. Thanks for sharing your secret!

    Brian, thanks for sharing your book discovery and number theories. There are clearly an infinite-times-three ways to look at this topic. :)

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