Vintage Writing Instruction

A podcast of classic articles on writing fiction.
Posted 04/21/2022

Episode 4: A Very Simple System

This one comes from the October, 1940 issue of Writer’s Digest, which appears to be in the public domain. The short version is this: Always send out/publish the very best fiction you are capable of producing. No phoning it in.

by William Benton Johnston

I would rather sell a good story to Grit for five dollars than a bad one to Collier’s for five hundred dollars.

Screwy? In view of the fact that I am a professional writer-and plan to continue in this business-I think not. The good story would advance me toward my ultimate goal; the bad one would take me back a step. Against this, four hundred and ninety-five dollars loses significance. I’m no long-haired artist. I’m almost bald and a hardworking “money writer”.

In the beginning, I evolved a very simple plan: to select a plot and write a story I around it, putting into every paragraph the very best of my ability.

You’ll probably say: “I’ve read some of your stuff that was awful tripe.”

True enough, but it was my best at the time and I have no apologies for it; only regrets.

After eight years and some two hundred and Seventy-five published stories-and read hundreds of theories–I’m using that same system. Perhaps it is because I am too dumb to learn a better method, or because te old one has supported me, and my family, all those years.

Some beginner, confused by so much varied and often complicated advice, may find the simplicity of this one-rule system a steadying influence.

Using it, I do not write a pulp or a slick yarn; I write a story and do my damndest to make it good. This may seem artless and unorthodox, but here are some actual results:

(a) A short-short, written with a one cent market in mind, sold for forty cents per word.

(b) A western, intended for the pulps, landed me in one of the big weeklies, to which I have made three subsequent sales.

In 1933, I was doing a few yarns for All-America Sports, at twelve to fifteen dollars per story. I had such a script in my pocket, ready for mailing, one day when I met Henry G. Rhodes on the streets of Memphis. He read the story and suggested that I try a thirty-five cents slick with it. The yarn was bought and featured; since then I have sold that publication thousands of dollars worth of fiction, with only one rejection.

Doesn’t going over each story, putting everything you have into it, cut down on production? Yes, it does. My agent sometimes calls me on the carpet about this, but in other letters, he says:

(a) “Enclosed herewith is my check for the story which we sold to [X] last week. The story wasn’t so wonderful; the plot material was trite indeed, yet I must admit that excellent writing and careful characterization put it across…”

(b) “We felt all along that this one, despite the fact that you really dovetailed two stories into one, would sell, for it had the virtues of being beautifully written and of presenting real living human beings.”

In trying to prove that constant efforts at perfection pays, this article may seem, a personal success story. Nothing could be farther from truth. I’m nowhere near the top and I may never get any closer. I mentioned that my writing has supported a family for eight years. Supported, in this instance, is a flexible word. Sometimes the going was pretty tough, and the meals anything but pretty. The family’s attitude has been swell, taking the cornbread and peas along with the caviar-and no grumbling.

For the past eight years and a half, ít hasn’t been so bad, because I have been fortunate in having the assistance of an agent with a keen story sense and a broad knowledge of markets. So now I just write the yarns and he sees that my efforts are shown to the proper books. Even the dog, Amos, is getting fat.

All this in defense of my simple system. Now let’s see how it works-in practice.

Several years ago, I was writing a serial and having a hard time with the plot (long fiction has always been my nemesis). The finished story was far from satisfactory. In fact, the whole thing was so hopeless that I grumbled about the long and tedious work of rewriting it paragraph by paragraph, cutting out every word that I could and re-casting clumsy sentences.

A writer friend of mine said: “Send it out a time or two ‘as is’-maybe you’ll get a nibble.”

It was a temptation. That kind of re-write on a serial adds up to work. Yet I decided that anything was better than making too bad an impression on editors. It took a couple of weeks to go over the manuscript and polish it up.

Mark Mellen was editor of Post Time. I sent the story there. In due time, came a letter:

“Your ‘Valkyre of Cumberland Hall’ received and first installment has gone forward to illustrator…

“I had another serial on my desk, with perhaps a better plot, but not so well written as yours…”

I have that original script in my desk, together with the revised version. Let’s look at the changes. Not particular good writing ín eíther ínstance, but the differerence between a rejection and a substantial check.

(a) Original.

The sale of stock to Cumberland Hall was successful so far as attendance went and when ít was over, the old shedrow was empty save far the one occupied by Tallahatchie.

After the crowd had drift£ed away, Betty and Allen sat in the office. Allen’s face was clouded with worry.

“The auctioneer did his best,” he admitted “and we sold them all, still we lack $2,400 and the note is due tomorrow.”

Betty looked at her bank book.

“We have $1,900 here, Allen.”

“You need that for current expenses.”

“We’ll live on bread and water. Mr. Gray must be paid in full. For some reason he wants Cumberland Hall- and badly.”

Allen figured again. “All of which comes to-five hundred short.”

“You can cipher up the darndest things.” Betty laughed. “Here, take this, jump in your roadster, drive down to Nashville and sell it.” She slipped a diamond ring from her finger and passed it across the desk.

“But, Betts, that was your graduation present.”

“Never mind; Gray must be paid.”

Allen drove away and, in the late afternoon, hitch-hiked his way back to Cumberland Hall.

“Where is your car?” Betty asked when he walked up the graveled drive.

“A crazy guy in Benjestown offered me six hundred and fifty bucks for it. Imagine a goof that screwy!”

He took the ring from his pocket and” lessly tossed it to her.

“Here’s your glassware; we won’t need it now.”

With a little cry, Betty ran down and flung herself into his arms.

“That car was the only valuable possesion you had left. Allen, you should done it.”

She pushed him away and looked at him. “If I lost Cumberland Hall and everything else I have in the world, I’d be rich having you, Allen Lamar.”

(a) Revised Copy.

When the stock sale was over, Tallahatchie was all that was left of Cumberland Hall stables.

“The auctioneer did his best, Allen admitted to Betty, “and yet we’re five hundred short.”

She slipped a diamond ring off her finger and gave it to him. Take this to Nashville and sell it.

“But, Betts-”

She said it again, “Take it to Nashville and sell it.”

Allen returned in late afternoon, walking. “A guy in Benjestown bought my car,” he explained.

“Imagine, six hundred bucks for that old wreck!” He gave Betty back her ring. “We don’t need to sell it now.”

For a moment she stood there and stared at him, then came down the steps very slowly and put her arms around him.

“If I lose Cumberland Hall and everything else that I possess,” she said gently, “I’ll always be rich–as long as I have you.”

(b) Original.

Jed Huskins came around the beech tree and shook hands with Jurden.

“What you want with me?”

“I got a job for you.” Jurden told him.

“What is it?” Jurden took out a wallet and counted from it a hundred dollars. “Sometime this morning, Jed, a horse van from Cumberland Hall Stables is going to leave Benjestown for Louisville. Now, that van will have a big black horse with a white star in his face, aboard. I don’t want that horse to go a bit farther than these hills; I want him taken from the van and killed, see?”

Jed Huskins thoughtfally took a chew of home-made twist tobacco.

“That van will have to come close to here; it’ll have to come right along Durveen Pike, the lonliest stretch of road in this country.”

“Exactly.” Jurden grinned evilly. “It ought not to be much trouble.”

Huskins reached out and took the money.

“It won’t be no trouble a-tall,” he drawled.

(b) Revised Copy.

Jed Huskins came around the beech tree.

Jurden said, “Jed, I’ve got a job for you.”

“What is it?”

Jurden opened his wallet and counted out a hundred dollars. “Sometime this morning, a Cumberland Hall van is leaving Benjestown for Louisville; a black horse with a star in his face will be aboard. I want that horse removed from the van and destroyed.”

Jed Huskins took out a plug of tobacco and bit off a chew. “The van will come along Durveen Pike, the lonsomest stretch of road in this here country.”

Jurden grinned. “Exactly-it ought not to be much trouble.”

Jed reached out and took the hundred dollars.

“No trouble a-tall,” he said.


Let me try to prove, in another way, that I write without the handicap of slants, pulp or slick. The opening paragraphs quoted below are from four of my stories: two pulps and two slicks. Can you denote any particular difference?

(1) The house was new and unmellowed, and the cleared ground around it made a brown scar on the green, far-reaching length of the valley. Yet there was already a home-like atmosphere here, manifest in bright curtains and planted flowers and consideration of small details which showed a woman’s care and pride.

It was a pretty place, too, with the up-sweep of the hills back of it and, beyond these, stony summits making their high, irregular pattern against the sky. Before it, the mesa ran into the far distance, smooth and flat and unbroken. (*“Homesteader,” Dime Western,* Feb., 1940.)

(2) Mrs. Molly Brown’s cottage stood on the outskirts of the little town of Barclay. It was a neat place, with orderly hedges and close-cropped lawn. In the rear, there were clean, well-arranged chicken runs and row after row of apple trees. Just outside the front gate, a sign announced that apples, fresh yard eggs and blooded Minorcas and Plymouth Rocks were for sale. (*“The Eye of Death,” Secret Agent X,* Feb., 1938.)

(3) White thunderheads lay like puffs of carnival taffy against the blue dome of the China sky. Wayne Driscoll, with a veteran’s instinct for advantage, lurked in the blindspot of the the sun and throttled the Curtiss combat ship to idling speed. The deadly little plane fretted as a high-strung thoroughbred fret under heavey, restraining wraps.

Wayne chuckled: a hell of a place to be thinking of horses. Seven thousand feet above the broad Yangtze, with Nanking sprawled like a helpless giant before the Japanese bombers coming over Pootung from their carriers anchored at the mouth of the Whangpoo.

Yet the human mind sometimes becomes strangely detached during crucial moments, groping into the past as if attempting to fix clearly old, familiar scenes against the endless stretch of eternity. (*“No More Guns,” Turf and Sports Digest,* June, 1939.)

(4) There was an unrealness about the entire scene, as if someone had splashed gay colors against a grim and sombre canvas.

First, the flowers blooming in the arid soil beside the walls of the old Territory prison. Then the little girl, with her deep blue eyes and bright print dress, leaning against those drab, tragedy-enclosing walls, laughing at something the Maricopa said as he lugged water up from the Colorado and filled a barrel at the garden’s edge. Then, too, the mere fact that the Kid was there, carrying water for flowers and making a little girl laugh and follow his movements with adoring eyes. (*“A Well Remembered Kiss,” Liberty,* June, 1940.)


I remember reading an article by a “million-words-a-year man” in which he ridiculed the idea of going over and rewriting pulp material. He said, in effect, “Rewriting or revising cent-a-word stuff is equivalent to getting half a cent for it—slave wages. Better to hammer it out, charge off your rejections and let volume take care of you.”

I watched the progress of this man for quite a time. I’ve forgotten his name, but he was contemporary of H. Bedford-Jones, Ernest Haycox and Cleve Adams. The conclusion is obvious, isn’t it?

I know the old gag about “An amateur writes a story and looks for a market; a professional looks at a market and writes a story.”

Naturally I “study markets”; a thing which every writer must do. But it doesn’t mean to study a small, fourth-rate one and then decide that you can meet its requirements without putting forth your best effort.

You are not writing for that particular magazine; you’re writing a story with your name signed to it. You’re laying a stone in the foundation upon which you hope to build a stairway to Liberty or Collier’s or The Saturday Evening Post.

You are advertising yourself as a good or a poor writer. Every story is a vote one way or the other.