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Archive for the ‘On Writing’ Category

Jack Woodford’s “Trial and Error”

Trial and Error is one of my favorite writing books, written in the first half of the 20th century by prolific (and irreverent) writer Jack Woodford. It’s long out of print, but I recommend finding a copy–if you can.

I’ll occasionally add choice tidbits from the book to this post.


On Writing:

    “The only people I know who possess the proper equipment for becoming a writer are professors of literature and literary critics–and they seldom write much. I am told this is a great pity.”

    “If you have come to writing for anything but a desire to see your name in print and make some easy money¬†without any work; if you have come to it with the determination to write and sell what you write, you certainly will–nothing but your own laziness will prevent you. No amount of stupidity will prevent you from writing to sell; no amount of ignorance. A total lack of inspiration will have, if anything, cash value for you as a writer.”

    “Don’t go around asking writers where they get their ideas. You’ll embarrass and infuriate them. And don’t worry if you haven’t got any ideas; you’re far better off without them if you are going to write to sell.”

    “Remember, nothing counts but the determination to write to sell; if you really have that you’ll get by–there’s not the slightest question of that.”

On Revision:

    “If you get the revision habit, after you practice it long enough, you won’t be able to write even a note to the milkman, telling him you’ll surely pay him Saturday if he’ll leave another quart today, without revising several times.”

On Editors:

    “Editors lose stories, spill gin on them, and burn holes in them with cigarettes. Technically, they ‘lose’ them; you’re not told about the gin and cigarettes.”
    “Never try to pass judgment on your own work–let editors do it. They don’t know anything about good and bad short stories either; but they know what they want.”
    “The cultured reader would detect only one essential difference between the fiction in slick magazines and the fiction in pulp magazines. He would find in the former consciously and intentionally bad writing, and in the latter unconsciously and naively bad writing.”
    “A story is always a concentration to a given point–in this it resembles a waterspout: two vortices of opposite forces drawn toward each other until–hey presto! for a moment the thing stands whirring, fused, and, topmost pleasure, seemingly alive throughout. If you write something like that and send it to a commercial editor, even though it be a masterpiece, his reaction will be one of dismay and fright, followed by anger and suspicion.”

On Vocabulary:

    “Whenever you catch yourself using a long word, one that would offend and afright the wife of a gas meter reader, truncate the word somehow.”
    “If you have been to college, you already know at least fifty thousand too many words for the equipment of a free lance writer in the commercial fiction racket. If you have been to high school, you will know at least ten thousand words to many. If you have finished eighth grade at grammar school, you will still know far too many words for use in this racket.”
    “Read only the magazines to which you intend to contribute; read only the kind of novels that you are going to write. Read them even if they gag and bore you to the point of desperation.”

On Sex and Writing:

    “Because writers do not view sex as sin, they are reputed to be more promiscuous than most Americans, merely because they are less hypocritical and not inclined to sneak while about their ‘sinning.’ “
    “The magnetism of sex has everything to do either with an author’s inspiration, or with his perspiration. Either can be work up to an astonishing degree by sexual abstinence.”
    “[A sexually frustrated writer] is just diverting her temporary unspentness into another channel. She does so, of necessity, because she, too, suffers for a short time from the universal delusion that the transitive sex verb can take only one object.”
    “Unless you are far undersexed, if you sit down to write the morning after a lot of sexual acrobatics, you will not write as well as you will when you are a trifle in need…As a general rule, in writing a novel, if you will abstain sexually for some time before beginning, and all during it, you will write a far better novel…But don’t carry the thing too far; and when you have your novel or stories done, for the good of your mental and physical health throw yourself into a sex ‘debauch,” if you can stand it and are not irritated and bored by it.”

On Ghost Writing:

    “Ghost writers do speeches and every other imaginable material for illiterates and half wits who have somehow achieved notoriety sufficient to cause magazine and book publishers to feel that something ‘written by them’ might be unloaded upon a credulous public.”

On Screenwriting:

    “The ideal motion picture is one that could be shot as a silent picture. Dialogue should be lagniappe.”
    “If there is a story at all, it is told in action, and the dialogue is merely a decoration, and not at all the min thing. Action is movement that tells something.”
    “It is the damndest job in the world to write a story motion picture length wholly in terms of actions; but if you can do it, and then after you’ve written add the decoration of brilliant dialogue, or even reasonably intelligent dialogue, Hollywood will have a place for you…an all around writer worth a lot of money to somebody and capable of entertaining the millions all over the world, instead of merely a handful of critics in New York.”

On Writing Novels:

    “There is no form of creative fiction easier to accomplish than the novel.”
    “For some reason the amateur, who ought to view short stories with fear and trembling, is afraid, instead, of the novel.”
    “All publishers are simply miserable if they can’t cut something out of a novel. There is not a publisher in the Unite States who has the slightest faith in an author’s ability to write a better novel himself than the publishing house can write with the redactor’s blue pencil.”
    “If you write one thousand words a day on a novel–and any dumb cluck can do that–you will have your first novel finished in seventy-five days, theoretically. If you can’t write five hundred words a day regularly, you’re hopeless; go do something else–you’re not fitted for commercial writing. Even a college professor of literature could write five hundred words a day, and there is nobody on earth more helpless facing writing.”
    “Novel writing is a gamble, a downright gamble. But a fascinating one. It is never much fun to write short stories; but it is almost always great fun to write a novel.”
    “And then one day the book is published. It will not occur to the publisher that you have the slightest interest in this fact, or the least curiosity to see what your book looks like in format.”
    “Nine times out of ten your book will be the last one on his list that season which he had expected would do anything ; all of those he thought were going to make him rich will as usual have acquired creeping paralysis shortly after leaving the presses and gone into a coma on bookstore shelves. Your book will pay for all of these.”
    “But remember, the average sale of a novel is eight hundred copies. I’m sorry.”

On Critics:

    “Only by the barest chance will a majority of them feel that your novel has been written the way ‘it ought to be written.’ Only the very egotistical height of cold nerve could dictate such delineation on the part of a given individual who is colored in his judgment not by any Golden Mean of literary mensuration but simply by his silly prejudices, behaviorist bias, and complex matters surrounding his early environment.”