Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Foolscapping the B-52

By Steven Pressfield | Published: August 28, 2013

There was a great article in the L.A. Times of August 19 about the B-52 bomber. Remember Slim Pickens in Dr. Strangelove, straddling a hydrogen bomb in the bomb bay of a Strategic Air Command plane, then dropping into thin air while cutting loose a Rebel yell?

That was a B-52.

Slim Pickens as B-52 pilot, Major T.J. "King" Kong, in "Dr. Strangelove."

In real life the aircraft first saw service in the 1950s. It’s still flying today. With the latest upgrades, the B-52 is expected to remain as the Air Force’s #1 workhorse bomber into the 2040s.

But here’s the sentence from the article that leapt out at me:

Now the plane, which was designed on the back of a napkin over a weekend in 1948 by three Boeing employees …

The longer version of the design story, from the Boeing website, relates that Boeing had proposed earlier in 1948 a six-engine, all-propeller model, called the XB-52. Chief engineer Ed Wells and his design team happened to be in Dayton, Ohio, when the air force phoned: “Scrap the props. Give us an all-jet version.” The team holed up over the weekend in a Dayton hotel. By Monday, they had designed the plane.

That’s the Foolscap Method.

In other words: brass balls, back-of-a-napkin, see-the-thing-as-a-whole. Don’t hesitate. Don’t overthink. Use instinct, use common sense. Don’t give Resistance time to screw you up.

Next Wednesday we’ll get into this in detail on the blog with the first of two ten-minute videos about how to use the Foolscap Method in writing a novel. But I couldn’t resist, today, taking notice of the B-52. There must be a million stories just like this, of bridges built, skyscrapers designed, businesses launched, and screenplays written.

The Boeing B-52, still flying after all these years.

Why does the back-of-an-envelope system work? I know how Shawn would answer. He’d say “Genre.”

No enterprise—no matter how complex or ambitious—is as difficult as it first seems. Every project falls into a genre, and every genre has conventions. Conventions take the mystery out of it.

A plane is a plane. It has wings. It has a fuselage. It has a powerplant.

A play is a play. It has Act One, Act Two, Act Three. It has characters, it has a theme, it has crisis/climax/resolution.

Suppose the Air Force had locked you and me in a hotel room on a Friday evening: “Come out by Sunday with a new bomber.”

We could have freaked. We might’ve panicked. We could’ve drained every bottle in the mini-bar. Or we could’ve gotten out a No. 2 pencil and solved this bastard on the back of an envelope.

Would such a solution be shallow? Superficial? Temporary?

With any luck the B-52 will still be flying in 2048—one hundred years after that Foolscap weekend in Dayton.

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

8 Responses to “Foolscapping the B-52”

  1. Basilis
    August 28, 2013 at 2:29 am

    I love the way you deliver the message, Steve.
    Are you a writer or something? 😆

  2. August 28, 2013 at 5:30 am


    The historical context is great and certainly right up your alley. I’m enjoying this ongoing lesson on constraints and clarity as a setup to the method.

  3. Kent Faver
    August 28, 2013 at 5:48 am

    And, then there are those of us who go to Amazon and spend an hour researching Foolscap. I need to hear this stuff regularly – thanks!

  4. August 28, 2013 at 6:51 am

    Such a great historical example to launch us thinking or maybe not but just doing…

  5. Bill Nemeth
    August 28, 2013 at 7:16 am

    The B-52 approach and the Foolscap Method is the antithesis of what is taught in every discipline from high school through university level graduate programs. The MBA, engineer or even the writer (I did not say author…there is a difference) is taught to follow the process. The process is what matters and is judged. The process injects systematic resistance. The process is what stands in the way of creating and producing great work. Foolscap injects a required brevity and clarity into a foundation of “shipping”.

    Thank you for illustrating a method to help get us beyond analysis and into focused action.

  6. Sonja
    August 28, 2013 at 10:42 am

    I have Do The Work, but I love these posts because it reminds me again of distilling my manuscript down to its simplest forms. Don’t over-think it.

    As always, eternally grateful to you Steven.

  7. August 28, 2013 at 1:08 pm

    Genres, conventions, structures, patterns, foolscap, fractals: back-of-the-napkin, see-it-as-a-whole works because that sees to the essence, the skeletal design or framework. Once we have that, we fill in and flesh out. Steven, I think you’ve used the phrase “Resistance cripples” what cripples a person is a broken bone. That is, a broken or cracked or dislocated structure. Hence, foolscap.

    Thanks, as always.

  8. GuyS
    September 14, 2013 at 10:47 am


    War of Art / Do the Work / Foolscap Method in a nutshell:

    “brass balls
    back-of-a-napkin, see-the-thing-as-a-whole
    Don’t hesitate , Don’t overthink.
    Use instinct, use common sense.
    Don’t give Resistance time to screw you up.”

    Thank You Thank You Thank You!