Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The One Rule For Writers

Jack Woodford 1949

Long ago and far away, I was selected to attend a management training course, that had the sole objective of discovering future top managers for the company.  The last exercise of the training was administered with each participant in a private cubicle that contained only a desk and a chair.  On the desk were two items – an instruction sheet and an in-box that was over flowing.
Once I was seated at the desk, the facilitator, speaking through the intercom, said, “Bert, this is a timed exercised.  The results of this exercise will override everything you’ve done so far in the training and will constitute 95% of your final rating.  I’m not going to tell you how much time you have for the exercise, only when the timing begins.  Listen carefully.  Read the instructions in their entirety before you begin the exercise… OK, start now.”
I snatched up the sheet of instructions and moaned.  There were fifty items on the sheet and the clock was running.  I started reading:
1.      Read every item thoroughly.
2.     Do not go to the next item until you’re sure you understand this item.
3.     Do not miss a single item on the list.
4.     Read each item in the in-basket.
5.     Note the number in the…
If I had ever wanted to skip an item, that was the time.  My corporate career was hanging in the balance – but I didn’t skip a one.  After what seemed a lifetime I read the last item.
50.  Pick up the in-basket and take it to the trash basket in the corner.  Dump everything, in-basket too, in the trash basket.
I was the only one in that particular class who read every item before beginning the test.   I owed that to my first crew chief in Vietnam who said, “Unless you have a death wish, never begin a mission by short cutting your preflight checklist.”
I’m a writer, an indie writer.  For writers, there are as many check lists and rules as there are people who fancy themselves writing teachers, and that number is infinite and growing rapidly.
I need something more concise – something to the point; something that incorporates everything that I need to remember.  After all, I don’t have a writer’s death wish. 
I have it!  Everything I need to know for successful writing in one statement and in a moment, you will have it too - the be-all-end-all rule for writers.

“Involve your reader with your lead character and then involve your character in sustained mounting conflict.  Do that, and only that, and you’ll never go wrong.  Know this rule and no other and you’ll come closer to writing for money than if you know all the other rules.”  Jack Woodford - 1949


  1. An oldie but a goodie. Great post.

  2. Of all the thousands of offerings I've read on becoming a good writer, I've never, ever come across this piece of advice. Since they all seem to be holding this particular piece of advice close to the chest, perhaps in self-interest, I'll bet this is the 'recipe' no one wants to share. I therefore deem this the best tip I've ever read! lol Thanks, Bert!

    1. Jack Woodford wrote a number of books on writing - they are out of print now but you might be able to find one on Abebooks or similar site - look for the titles Jack Woodford on Writing, or Writing and Selling.

      I had to find the second one on the shelf to give you the title. When I opened it I found this quote taped in the front - you'll love it -
      "Jack, I explained to you that the book must be full of sex."
      "But Sam, my God, where in the world is there any more sex than there is in that book; as a matter of fact there isn't that much sex anywere."
      "There's a lot of sex in that book, all right, Jack, but it should start right away with sex."
      "But Sam, it's right on the first page."
      "I know, Jack, but it's way down at the bottom of the first page."

      You've got to love Jack Woodford.

  3. Thanks Bert for sharing a great intro story and a wonderful rule.

  4. LOL! I did a similar class. It was for job placement, and the instructions were to read the application in its entirely before filling it out. At the end of the application, the instructions were to not fill it out. Of course, I'm not one for instructions unless it's really necessary ...