A popular and engaging showcase of bad writing is the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, described by its sponsors as “a whimsical literary competition that challenges entrants to compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels.”
Each year, the Bulwer-Lytton chooses the best (worst) of deliberately bad opening sentences. The contest, established by the English Department at San Jose State University in 1982, is named after Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, of “dark and stormy night” notoriety.
And, in case you ever wondered about the rest of that “dark and stormy night” opening:
“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”
Nominees have included, for example:
• “Like an over-ripe beefsteak tomato rimmed with cottage cheese, the corpulent remains of Santa Claus lay dead on the hotel floor.”
• “As a scientist, Throckmorton knew that if he were ever to break wind in the echo chamber, he would never hear the end of it.”
• “The sun oozed over the horizon, shoved aside darkness, crept along the greensward, and, with sickly fingers, pushed through the castle window, revealing the pillaged princess, hand at throat, crown asunder, gaping in frenzied horror at the sated, sodden amphibian lying beside her, disbelieving the magnitude of the frog’s deception, screaming madly, ‘You lied!’”
Those writers are doing it for fun — and to be funny. But it’s not funny when writers of serious intent — news writers, say — get the same result. Check out the following, which appeared in an online sports story in September 2006:
“In what appears to be an offseason unparalleled in terms of quarterback movement, the carousel of change has operated at warp-speed, spinning out of control at times, and the volume on the calliope has been cranked to the max. Most of the past several offseasons have included a high-stakes game of quarterback musical chairs. But there might not be enough overstuffed recliners in a La-Z-Boy warehouse to handle what has transpired leaguewide since the end of the 2005 season.”
Even the most skilled editors would have difficulty ferreting out and translating that passage’s meaning. The work (and the writer) is out of control. Strip the passage of its mangled metaphor, stale image and hackneyed vocabulary, and you haven’t much left except a few meaningless prepositions.
Take a look at the following, which appeared in a Colorado newspaper, also in September:
“The Colorado and U.S. economies appear to be gliding to a soft landing heading into 2007, although a slowdown in consumer spending could cause them to sputter, economists said Thursday at a gathering of construction-industry workers.
“‘I don’t see the U.S. economy going in the tank by any means,’ said Richard Wobbekind, a University of Colorado economist. ‘But if we were to see incredibly weak holiday sales, we should keep our seat belts fastened.’
“Cliff Brewis, an economist with McGraw-Hill Construction, said the economy appears stable — although portions of the construction industry are poised for a slowdown.
“He said the residential market has clearly softened, although ‘we don’t expect it to fall off the shelf.’”
So here we are, amid a soft landing and sputtering slowdown. We’re in the tank with seat belts fastened but poised for a slowdown. Or for a softened economy that won’t fall off the shelf.
What can be done with all that?
A final example, from a Texas newspaper: “All of these factors have combined to transform the company, a high-flying success story until just recently, into a large question mark whose future skies are cloudy at best.”
How does such flawed professional writing occur in the first place, let alone appear unedited in print? For one thing, the writers are trying too hard. And for another, media writing frequently suffers from a simple failure of taste. I’ve heard editors identify news and news feature writers as “our literary writers,” when they’re really only rank overwriters with a tin ear.
Fact is, overwriting is no more welcome in literature than it is anywhere else.
The creation of effective description, metaphor and other figurative language depends upon clear thinking and the ability to edit oneself. And successful self-editing depends upon taste and restraint — that is, zero self-indulgence.
Paula LaRocque, former Dallas Morning News writing coach, is the author of The Book on Writing: The Ultimate Guide to Writing Well and Championship Writing. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org