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Exercise: Do Your Worst (Version 2)

These exercises were written by IWW members and administrators to provide structured practice opportunities for its members. You are welcome to use them for practice as well. Please mention that you found them at the Internet Writers Workshop (http://www.internetwritingworkshop.org/).

Prepared by: Rheal Nadeau
Posted on: April 3, 2004
Reposted on: February 21, 2005
Reposted on: February 26, 2006
Reposted, revised  on: November 18, 2007
Reposted on: May 20, 2012

Exercise: In the spirit of the famous Bulwer-Lytton contest, write one to three bad opening sentences no longer than 60 words apiece.


Most of the time, of course, we try to write beautifully. In order to do things better, however, it sometimes helps to look at what makes things wrong. Finding out what not to do is just as important as finding out what to do.

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 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 house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness."

Longtime IWW owner Rheal Nadeau read this novel and wrote, "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. So perhaps we shouldn't judge Bulwer-Lytton by current standards.

Nonetheless, 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." You might check out the contest and its winners at http://www.bulwer-lytton.com/. If we look at what makes those opening sentences bad, maybe we can learn something about avoiding bad writing.


Exercise: In the spirit of the famous Bulwer-Lytton contest, write one to three bad opening sentences no longer than 60 words apiece.


When critiquing, try to pinpoint what makes each sentence bad. Suggest ways to make it worse, and also how to "correct" it; thus the critiquing portion of the exercise also involves a writing exercise.

Web site created by Rhéal Nadeau and the administrators of the Internet Writing Workshop.
Modified by Gayle Surrette.