Prepared by: Rhéal Nadeau
Posted on: April 3, 2004
Reposted on: February 21, 2005
Reposted on: February 26, 2006
This week, we’ll try a different approach
to learning about writing.
Most of the time, of course, we try to do
things well. However, in
order to do things better, it can help to look at what makes things
wrong. Finding out what not to do is just as important as finding out
what to do.
(There’s also room in all this for having
Perhaps more than any other, one phrase
has come to symbolize bad
writing: "It was a dark and stormy night". This is part of the opening
of the novel Paul Clifford by Edward Bulwer-Lytton. The full opening
sentence actually reads:
It was a dark and stormy
night; the rain fell in
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 house-tops, and fiercely agitating
the scanty flame
of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.
I am actually reading this novel; it's not
a bad book overall, but
it is very overwritten by today's standards. For example, sheep are not
sheep but "that pastoral animal which changes its name into mutton
after its decease" or "the white flocks, - those most peaceful of God's
creatures, - that in fleecy clusters stud the ascent". The host of a
party is never referred to as the host, but as "the master of the
ceremonies", "the monarch of the rooms", "the man of balls", "the
tutelary spirit of the place", or "the Lycurgus of the rooms".
To put this in perspective, Bulwer-Lytton
was a contemporary of
Charles Dickens; in fact the two were friends and admired each other's
work. And let's keep in mind that Dickens was hardly terse himself. The
opening to A Tale of Two Cities is not simply the famous "It was the
best of times, it was the worst of times", but actually goes on and on:
It was the best of
times, it was the worst of
times, it was the age of
wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the
epoch of belief, it was
the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light,
it was the season of
Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the
winter of despair, we had
everything before us, we had nothing before us, we
were all going direct
to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way--in
short, the period
was so far like the present period, that some of its
authorities insisted on its being received, for good
or for evil, in the
superlative degree of comparison only.
So care should be taken in judging
Bulwer-Lytton by current
So famous is the "dark and stormy night"
opening that it has spawned
a bad writing contest to "compose the opening sentence to the worst of
all possible novels". (Check out the contest and its winners at http://www.bulwer-lytton.com/.
Not only funny, but if we look at what makes those opening sentences
bad, maybe we can learn something about avoiding bad writing. (Note
also the categories for different genres - keep this in mind for the
Which brings me to this week's exercise.
In the spirit of the Bulwer-Lytton
contest, write one to three bad
opening sentences, with a suggested maximum length of 50 words per
When critiquing, try to pinpoint what
makes each sentence bad.
Suggest ways to make it worse, and also how to "correct" it (so the
critiquing portion of the exercise also involves a writing exercise.)
At the end of the week, I encourage all
posters to submit their
efforts to the contest.
Rhéal Nadeau's wrap-up
Posted on: April 24, 2004
I thought this exercise would be fun, and
it was. What horrible
prose we saw!
Non-sequiturs, big buildups for tiny effects, absurd metaphors. There
many ways - and probably more - to be bad as to be good.
What was most interesting to me, however,
was the submissions where
critiques said: actually, this isn't bad, I would keep reading this. My
thought was: ouch, it must hurt to fail at being bad! But I thought
some more. Perhaps the lesson we can learn from those "failed" attempts
being bad is that sometimes, we do need to take risks, to tackle the
let the creative juices flow without restraint. So this was the lesson
learned: too often, we are too restrained, too unwilling to stretch
and our writing. If we are too afraid of being bad, we may not take the
to being really good!
Alright now, how many of you have
submitted your efforts to the
contest? What are you waiting for? Reread your submissions, think about
comments you received, revise as necessary, and send it off! (See the
rules at http://www.bulwer-lytton.com/#The%20rules)
I hope to look at the
winners and honourable mentions later this year, and see a number of
Web site created by
Rhéal Nadeau and
the administrators of the Internet Writing Workshop.
Modified by Gayle Surrette.