Read the Instructions. Even if You’re Captain Awesome.

Controls for toilet in Tokyo Airport

The afternoon before Parents’ Night in 19** (year redacted to protect the guilty), my fourth-grade teacher gave us a special activity.  She handed out a piece of paper with 36 numbered lines of instructions and asked us to complete the assignment in pen. This was a Very Big Deal, because generally we worked in pencil.

The paper read:

Line 1: Read all instructions before proceeding.

Line 2: Place your name in the upper-right hand corner of the page.

Line 3: Underline the words “Line 3” twice.

And so on, to the bottom of the page and onto the back side.  Each line gave instructions for a special mark or edit we needed to perform.

Line 36, on the back side of the page, read: “Ignore all previous instructions; perform only the action described on Line 2.”

Turning my paper over, I stared in horror at the dots, squiggles, triangles and lines I’d drawn all over the page.  Like the rest of the class, I ignored Line 1 and completed each instruction as I came to it … thereby revealing that I had not, in fact, followed the instructions.

The teacher informed us that she intended to give our parents the same test at parents’ night, and that she would ask them to leave their papers for us to see in the morning.  She let us hide our papers, the better to perpetrate the trick on our unsuspecting parental units. I went home rubbing my devious little hands with glee.  I had never (and I do mean never) managed to put one over on my parents, and I couldn’t wait for them to fall for this one, hook, line and sinker.  

The following morning, I entered the classroom and raced to my desk.  All around me, classmates snickered as they discovered their parents, too, had fallen for the trick.  Marked-up parental papers floated around the room as my fellow students shared their parents’ failures with delight.

I ran to my desk and saw my parents’ papers: pristine, with not a single mark except for their names written neatly in the upper right hand corner of the page. 

Out of 25 students – almost 50 parents – mine were the only ones who had not failed.

And I had never been so disappointed. But I learned an important lesson. Come to think of it, I learned more than one.

First: When someone tells you to read the instructions, the best way not to look foolish is to read them–and follow them. 

Second: Even though, at that moment, I considered my parents party-poopers of the first order, they were also the only ones in the room–child or adult–who “passed” the test. And  though I’d hoped to catch them out, I had to admit that I was also a little proud to know they were that smart.

Building a writing career is a lot more like that fourth-grade test than most of us would like to admit. Whether you’re writing a manuscript, a synopsis, a query letter, or an email to your editor, the critical fourth-grade lesson holds: Read the instructions and follow them, completely, even if you know beyond question that you are Captain Awesome and the Rules Do Not Apply.  Trust me on this, the rules apply. To me, to you, and to the man, woman, cat, and unicorn next to you.  In fact, the more you think they don’t apply, the more likely it is that you’re the one who’s wrong.

Following the rules will make you smarter, and more successful, than most of the other people in the classroom. And when trying to launch a career in a difficult, highly competitive industry, all of us can use all the help we can get.

I know this makes me a party-pooper.  What can I say? Sometimes, the acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree.