Wretched Writers Welcome
How do we recognize ineffective writing?
Allow me to introduce the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. Sponsored by San Jose State University, the competition challenges participants to compose the worst opening sentence for a real or imaginary novel. The contest has taken place yearly since 1982, and it draws increasing acclaim with each new year.
Here are a few grand-prize winning entries:
2014: “When the dead moose floated into view the famished crew cheered – this had to mean land! – but Captain Walgrove, flinty – eyed and clear headed thanks to the starvation detox cleanse in progress, gave fateful orders to remain on the original course and await the appearance of a second and confirming moose” – Elizabeth Dorfman, Bainbridge Island, WA
2012: “As he told her he loved her she gazed into his eyes, wondering, as she noted the infestation of eyelash mites, the tiny deodicids burrowing into his follicles to eat the greasy sebum therein, each female laying up to 25 eggs in a single follicle, causing inflammation, whether the eyes are truly windows of the soul; and if so, his soul needed regrouting” – Cathy Bryant, Manchester, England
2011: “Cheryl’s mind turned like the vanes of a wind – powered turbine, chopping her sparrow – like thoughts into bloody pieces that fell onto a growing pile of rotten memories” – Sue Fondrie, Oshkosh, WI
2010: “For the first month of Ricardo and Felicity’s affair, they greeted one another at every stolen rendezvous with a kiss – a lengthy, ravenous kiss, Ricardo lapping and sucking at Felicity’s mouth as if she were a giant cage – mounted water bottle and he were the world’s thirstiest gerbil” – Molly Ringle, Seattle, WA
2009: “ Folks say that if you listen real close at the height of the full moon, when the wind is blowin’ off Nantucket sound from the nor’east and the dogs are howlin’ for no earthly reason, you can hear the awful screams of the crew of the “Ellie May,” a sturdy whaler captained by John McTavish; for it was on just such a night when the rum was flowin’ and, Davey jones be damned, big john brought his men on deck for the first of several screaming contests” – David McKenzie, Federal Way, WA
Why are these so funny? (I’m assuming you laughed at least once.) Why are they so bad? (I know that seems like an obvious question, but we’ll get there.)
These opening sentences are funny, first and foremost, because they describe actions that are over-the-top, exaggerated, and silly. But what abouthow the actions are described?
Every one of these sentences features at least one long clause. Dorfman’s Captain Walgrove is “flinty-eyed and clear headed thanks to the starvation detox cleanse in progress,” and this is good to know, but do we have to learn about it in the first sentence? When we’re waiting to learn what he’s about to do? And yes, Bryant draws a disturbing image of an eye, but without that long clause, the sentence would simply read: “As he told her he loved her she gazed into his eyes, wondering whether the eyes are truly windows of the soul. If so, his soul needed regrouting.” Fondrie’s sentence isn’t so bad – and least we can understand it at first skim – but, while the image of a wind-powered turbine chopping sparrow-like thoughts is graphic, it seems a little off topic. Ringle writes one sentence when she should have written two: Ricardo’s kiss should be a separate sentence. As for the last one, a couple clauses to set the scene, more clauses that should be separate sentences describing the “Ellie May” and her history….
Of course, you already knew these sentences were badly written. That is, after all, the point of the contest. And this brings us to the second reason these sentences are funny: they are obviously terrible opening sentences. Maybe you didn’t look at these sentences and think, “Wow, that’s a lot of clauses, that slows down the pace of the sentence, destroys its focus, and causes readers to become confused and lose interest.” But you probably laughed at them. You recognized something ludicrous about them, that they were defying some very basic writing convention and should not be taken seriously.
But what if these sentences weren’t the opening sentences of what promise to be either incredibly bad or incredibly funny novels? What if a similar sentence opened a piece of nonfiction prose, say an academic essay? Would you laugh then? I don’t think so, and I’ll tell you why.
First, let’s imagine what such a sentence might look like.
“As she expressed her lifelong admiration of Austen’s writing, Woolf explored, in her writing on Austen, in which she analyzed normative ideology, ideology impossible to escape and hopeless to fight against, offering no alternatives but Woolf’s, in which female writers can’t escape the behavioral norms of dominant culture but can work within them, best represented by Austen, the ability of female writers to preserve a unique identity against a backdrop of ideology formed around the male dominated world of literature; yet, in focusing solely on Austen, Woolf is limited by space, time, and historical facts.”
What everyone recognizes as ridiculous in fiction passes itself off as confusing and serious in academic prose. This is not right.
Do we really think these sentences make sense? That they’re easy to read? Of course not. But do we complain about it? This, surely, is the “tone” of academic prose, and academic prose is not to be laughed at.
But is it really? Professional academics write essays so that they can tell others about their research and ideas. The smart ones present their ideas intelligibly – after all, the whole point is to communicate, not to obfuscate. Granted, complex ideas and research can make writing difficult to understand. But most of the complexity you see in academic essays lies in the ideas, not in the prose. And if it doesn’t, it should. (Not even the best professors get it right all the time).
Don’t be fooled by an excess of convoluted clauses and five-syllable words ending in “-alizationism.” Complexity of ideas is distinct from complexity of prose. And remember this: simple ideas should be presented in clear, understandable terms. Complex ideas should be presented in clear, understandable terms. I think you see where I’m going with this.
Still don’t see the humor in convoluted non-fiction prose? Well, let’s try rephrasing some of it. We can break it up into smaller, more sensible sentences.
“Throughout her life, Virginia Woolf admired Jane Austen’s writing. In her writing on Austen, Virginia Woolf explores the ability of female writers to preserve a unique identity against a backdrop of ideology formed around the male dominated world of literature. As Woolf describes it, this ideology is impossible to escape and hopeless to fight against. But Woolf offers an alternative: if female writers can’t escape the behavioral norms of dominant culture, they can work within them. For Woolf, Austen is the best representation of this model of interaction. But in focusing solely on Austen, Woolf limits herself with space, time, and historical facts.”
The tortured prose of the original is unnecessary. We can say the same thing more clearly if we tidy things up a little.
What’s the moral of the story? First, convoluted writing is no way to start a novel, and it’s no way to start an essay. Second, next time you see a piece of writing with little meaning and less sense, don’t be intimidated and mumble that you can’t understand it. See it for what it is: clumsy and inarticulate. And for the love of clarity (and your readers’ sanity), don’t write like that.
Check out more crazed fiction at the official Bulwer – Lytton Fiction Contest site: http://www.bulwer-lytton.com/winners.html.