The Red Pen of Doom

Conventional wisdom about writing is conventionally wrong.

Writing secret: Light as air, strong as whiskey, cheap as dirt

Those nine words are magic.

And those words help sell 5.842 gazillion miles of barbed wire back in the late 1800s, when the West was still wild and there weren’t handy trees or stones to make fences.

Light as air, strong as whiskey, cheap as dirt – I’ll remember that for days. Forever, maybe.

It’s honed down to perfection. Nine words, and not a one is wasted.

barbed wire

A little strand of steel with a twist and BOOM, you are golden. Photo by Guy Bergstrom.

In the five seconds it takes to hear those words, or read them, you’re sold.

Writers struggle with those first five seconds.

  • What’s the best way for a reporter to convince the city editor put a story on A1 instead of buried next to the obituaries on B15?
  • How can you sum up a 100,000 novel in a single page – or a single sentence?
  • When a magazine editor is buried with pitches, how does yours stand out from the slush pile?
  • What should a screenwriter say about his script while riding in an elevator for 30 seconds with Steven Spielberg?

Science shows us secrets

Here comes the science: people make up their mind about you – or your writing – in the first five seconds.

Viscerally. Unconsciously.

Their little reptile brains see your face or your words and make a split decision.

Later on, our oversized frontal lobes justify that snap judgment.

It’s not a rational thing. I’ve seen the science. Go read BLINK by Malcolm Gladwell. (Go on, read it. I’ll be over here, drinking Belgian ale.)

Different researchers testing for different things found the same result.

  • The first five seconds of a job interview determines whether you get it
  • The first five ticks of the clock during a professor’s first lecture of the semester, with the sound turned off, can be used to predict exactly how students will rate that professor.
  • A quick glance – less than – at two candidate mug shots will predict who will win the race. This works with adults or five-year-olds. Mug shots. No names. No parties. The shape of the face.

This last result fascinated me. Researchers had people glance at those mugs, then rate the candidates on attractiveness, intelligence, competence and whatnot.

They thought attractiveness would matter.Nope. They thought race and sex and age would matter. Nope.

Competence was the only thing related to the eventual winner.

This makes sense. If somebody’s attacking your village, you don’t pick Nerdy McNerdy as the leader of the defense. Brains without brawn won’t work.

You don’t pick Miss America to lead the troops into battle, either, because she’ll simply be nice to look at while you all get slaughterd.

And you don’t pick Mr. Neanderthal, tough but stupid.

Who do you want? Somebody who looks competent – tough but smart. A Clint Eastwood, somebody who looked like he knew what the hell he was doing.

Hold it out and squint

Alright, you’re already thinking of the Greatest Squinty Eyed Tough Guy in Movies, so remember this rule: Hold it out and squint.

Hold out your first page of your text and squint.

Is it a sea of gray?

Is there a photo or graphic? Are all the paragraphs the same length? Do you have any subheads or anything to break up the text?

Now, this doesn’t work for certain things. You can’t have photos and whatnot in screenplays or manuscripts.

Later on, though, it will make or break you.

When you go to rent a movie (yes, I know Blockbuster is dead to you and it’s all Netflix now, so pretend you’re clicking away with Mr. Mouse), you make decisions in far less than five seconds. You glance at the front cover and move on.

Same thing with books. Glance and move. Glance and move.

Maybe you pick a book up and read the text. What makes you pick it up? Images first. Maybe a good title. Glance and move.

That’s why the Squint Test is so important.

Think about movie posters with too much going on. When you squint, you don’t know what’s what.They’ve got the star and the co-star and seven different sidekicks in there, plus the villain and two random thugs. It’s a mess.

Less is more. Simple works best.

The poster for JAWS is perfect: a pretty young woman swimming along and a giant invincible shark roaring out of the depths of the ocean. It doesn’t get any more primal than that. We need the shark and a pretty girl. That’s it.

jaws movie poster

The JAWS movie poster is classic, and will always be classic, because it is simple and brutal and seven separate types of awesome. Steven the Spielberg, stick with this movie thing — you have talent.

Putting this knowledge to evil use

Our conscious brains aren’t really running the show. We’re like a mouse riding on top of an elephant, sometimes biting the elephants ear to go left or right.

How can we writers use that knowledge?

Tap into the reptile part of our brains. Go for the gut.

Blake Snyder hit this idea with his Hammer of Truth in SAVE THE CAT when he demolished the conventional wisdom of genres.

JAWS isn’t a horror movie. ALIEN isn’t a sci-fi movie. FATAL ATTRACTION isn’t a domestic drama. All three are the same story, the same primal threat: there’s a monster in the house. You can’t get away. Either you fight it and kill it, or it eats you.

Hollywood screenwriters are masters of the first five seconds. Fire up the google and check out “loglines” to see how they sum up a movie in a sentence. They make writers of novels look like silly chatterboxes. Think you’re being hip with a one-page synopsis instead of five pages? Hollywood laughs at a full page of text. One sentence, buddy.

Can you do it in a sentence?

How about nine words?

Copywriters are also world-class at those first five seconds. Visit copyblogger and soak up their wisdom. DO IT NOW.

The best five-second pitches — whether it’s a headline for a newspaper story, a poster for a movie or a pitch for a novel — tap into those primal needs and instincts that Blake Snyder talks about.

Survival vs. death. Love vs. loss.

You know what the stakes are. Instantly. Not 30 seconds into it. Not 15 seconds after learning about the when and where and who. You see what’s at stake, right away.

Here are four words: COMET WILL DESTROY EARTH.

That’s a newspaper story everybody will read. Everybody. It’s a movie people saw twice (ARMAGEDDON and DEEP IMPACT).

Part of the secret seems to what’s missing: the hero. You don’t hear a damn thing about the hero after you’ve boiled it all down, do you? Screw the hero. Heroes are plain vanilla and boring. The best ones, the ones that hook us, talk about the bad guy: the alien, the shark, the comet. Hmm. Maybe there’s a reason for that. But that’s a post for another day.


This is Guy Bergstrom the writer, not the Guy Bergstrom in Stockholm or the guy in Minnesota who sells real estate or whatever. Separate guys. Kthxbai.

Guy Bergstrom. Photo by Suhyoon Cho.

Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot. Wrote a thriller that won some award (PNWA 2013). Represented by Jill Marr of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency.

About Guy Bergstrom

Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot.

79 comments on “Writing secret: Light as air, strong as whiskey, cheap as dirt

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  57. Marylin Warner
    December 17, 2012

    Fabulous article! I’ve pulled up two almost-finished articles and am going to play with 9 perfect words to replace the slower beginnings.
    Okay…maybe 12 perfect words. But I WILL definitely shorten the beginnings. Thanks!


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  64. joeynga
    February 7, 2012

    Devouring this blog. Love it!

    Have always been a believer in 5 sec rule and in ‘less is more’.

    Couldn’t agree more about Jaws cover. It is primal, it is fear, it is the nightmare the girl cannot escape from. Evil perfection.


  65. bonusparts
    February 4, 2012

    I sat down with a comics creator friend. We wanted to talk stories. He told me, “Give me your plot, in seven words or less.” That seven seems to be the magic number. (I agonise over truncating my plots to fit those guidelines!)

    Damn you (and bless you) for reminding me of the necessity that split-second pitch.


  66. I totally squee’d reading this! Thanks!


  67. notewords
    January 8, 2012

    There you go again, changing my point of view. Very interesting.


  68. cynthia hartwig
    January 1, 2012

    “Papa, where’re you going with that axe?” EB White knew a thing or two about getting you into the story.

    Would like to pick a fight with you re the copywriting at Copyblogger, though. Hack stuff, right out of old school direct marketing from those horrid people who used to stuff your mail box. Direct marketers masquerading as social media “new” thinkers. Writing a Top Ten Reasons not to Write a “Top Ten Reasons” post right now.


    • Guy
      January 1, 2012

      Give me a shout when you write that — I’d like to read it.

      Agree with you that titling every post “Seven reasons why every headline must start with a number” is puts the S in Stupid.


  69. suzannesan
    January 1, 2012

    I can always rely upon you to bring me back down to earth. Thank you.


  70. Guy
    November 15, 2011

    Funny man. But short alone doesn’t make something powerful. Doesn’t give it magic.

    You have to find the magic, THEN compress it into an itty bitty package of infinitely powerful awesomesauce.


  71. Diane (@pitchuniversity)
    September 7, 2011

    Hell Yes.

    This is pitching. It is not a list of things to include (character, situation, external conflict, internal conflict, goal, motivation, stakes, hair gel). It is the thing you’d say in 5 seconds to get your friend to go see the movie with you.

    And then, if we’re really, really good at it, you think barbwire = whiskey.



  72. Camryn Rhys
    July 29, 2011

    Loved Blink. Best nonfiction book I’ve read in ten years. Maybe more. Completely changed my life.


  73. Elise Logan
    April 24, 2011

    This is why honing your tagline is so stinking important when writing fiction. This is why cover copy is gold. Cover + tagline = flip to cover copy. If the cover copy doesn’t grab them in the 2.5 seconds left… toast.

    Think about how books spend that instant hit cover space – the cover image plus either tagline or a cover quote they think will sway you.

    “This book is the best thing since God created Man.”–SuperAwesomeAuthor

    The book marketing people know they have a couple of seconds to snag you. And then maybe another couple of seconds to keep you with cover copy.

    Which is why you should spend more time on the cover and tagline than the cover copy.


  74. Kimberly Kinrade
    April 20, 2011

    Another prime example of why journalism trains you well. If you can write great headlines, you’re gold. If you can catch the floundering attention span of your reader in the first sentence, you’re gold. If you can write an engaging story in the designated word count, you’re gold.

    Most books are bronze at best.

    This is what the Red Pen of Doom is for!


  75. laurastanfill
    April 20, 2011

    Great title and great post. I’m ready to work on my 5-second pitch now and think about whether I can build it around my villain…


    • epicblackcar
      April 20, 2011

      Laura the Stanfill,
      Thank you, and welcome to the elite group if peoples who post witty comments. Come back and start a literary fist fight about dangling participles or Nicholas Sparks or why Hollywood keeps spending $205 million on movie remakes of video games or bad 80s cartoons that only existed to sell toys.


      • laurastanfill
        April 20, 2011

        I don’t start fights but I’d be happy to throw a few punches if there’s a brouhaha brewing. At least if it’s about dangling participles.


  76. Gwen Hernandez
    April 20, 2011

    Nothing but brilliance from start to finish!


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