The Fine Art Of Bad Writing

cartoon depicting man confused by bad writing

As writer/producer/actor Dan Harmon once said, “Good writers hate bad writing, but hating bad writing doesn’t make you good. Writing badly does.” We’ve got proof.

Ah, gentle reader, or should I say gentle writer? I can see that your innate proclivity for honing your writerly skills to a razor edge — capable of slicing shallots into micro-thin delicacies — has propelled you to this post. You won’t be disappointed as we descend into Dante’s Inferno of bad writing. As Tom Waits said, “The world is a hellish place and bad writing is destroying the quality of our suffering.”

Write badly, win a prize

Do you think it’s easy to write badly? Then you should compose an entry for The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, sponsored by the English Department of San Jose State University. The idea is to devise a hideously worded opening to what might be the worst novel ever written. Stu Duval of Auckland, New Zealand won the Grand Prize in 2021 with this colorfully salacious opening:

A lecherous sunrise flaunted itself over a flatulent sea, ripping the obsidian bodice of night asunder with its rapacious fingers of gold, thus exposing her dusky bosom to the dawn’s ogling stare.

The roots of this silly but enduring contest harken back to the eternally mocked author, Sir Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, who penned a novel, Paul Clifford, published in 1830. The opening 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 housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

The Literary Review has its own take on bad writing, offering the Bad Sex in Fiction Award for what they deem “poorly written, redundant, or downright cringeworthy passage of sexual description in modern fiction.” They don’t judge pornography or solely erotic works, but good novels in which the author goes way off the tracks in the sex passages.

The judges in 2020 couldn’t make up their minds and eventually chose two winners. An excerpt from one of them, Pax by John Harvey, reads:

She was burning hot and the heat was in him. He looked down on her perfect black slenderness. Her eyes were ravenous. Like his own they were fire and desire. More than torrid, more than tropical: they two were riding the Equator. They embraced as if with violent holding they could weld the two of them one.

Figures of speech to make readers wince

Metaphors are tricky little beasts with the potential to instantly turn your prose into bat guano. The Washington Post has a yearly bad simile and metaphor contest. The latest was from 2020, but I found some from an earlier year of the contest (2008) especially amusing. A couple of examples:

“I felt a nameless dread. Well, there probably is a long German name for it, like Geschpooklichkeit or something, but I don’t speak German. Anyway, it’s a dread that nobody knows the name for, like those little square plastic gizmos that close your bread bags. I don’t know the name for those either. –Jack Bross, Chevy Chase

She was as unhappy as when someone puts your cake out in the rain, and all the sweet green icing flows down and then you lose the recipe, and on top of that you can’t sing worth a damn. –Joseph Romm, Washington

In the same vein, Laura Hale offers some mangled metaphors in a blog post:

  • That’s a kettle of fish of a different color.
  • You’ve buttered your bread, now lie in it.
  • Never lick a gift horse in the mouth.
  • Remember, Rome wasn’t burned in a day.
  • This is up my wheelhouse.
  • I’ll push some strings for you.

Likewise, similes are seductive sirens luring you toward the gaping maw of bad writing. If you get a bit overwrought constructing similes, you might start spinning out sentences like this:

Staring at the sumptuous buffet table, her eyes glittered like Mardi Gras jewelry thrown enthusiastically from balconies by drunken sorority girls.

Even bad art is subjective

Deciding that something is overwrought, of course, is a matter of taste and individual sensibilities. Just ask the French whether Jerry Lewis is a comic genius or not and be prepared for a battle.

Comparing good and bad similes, one website, Scott Writes Stuff, offers this as an example of a good simile:

He lapped up the water like a rabid dog, each swallow making him feel like he was being reborn into the world.

While this might work well in an episode of Fear the Walking Dead, for a short story in The New Yorker, it’s way over the top. Nonetheless, Wilson’s site provides a fun, entertaining look at the use of language in creative writing.

Writing for The Paris Review, Dan Piepenbrig sees awful similes as a mainstay of literary prose and gives examples.

There’s an abysmal simile making the rounds online right now, drawn from a certain splashy literary debut: “Breasts like bronzed mangoes.” Yes, it comes courtesy of a male writer, of course; and yes, Google suggests it’s the only use of the phrase “bronzed mangoes” in recorded history. Even so: as an object of ridicule, this is what you’d have to call low-hanging fruit.

Piepenbrig lays out a sampling of other clunkers gleaned from actual published writings:
5 Steps Guide

  • A glacial pang of pain like the stab of a dagger of ice frozen from a poisoned well
  • A name which sounds even now like the call of a trumpet
  • Debasing fancies gather like foul birds
  • He snatched furiously at breath like a tiger snatching at meat
  • Like some unshriven churchyard thing, the friar crawled
  • Herding his thoughts as a collie dog herds sheep
  • Like Death, who rides upon a thought, and makes his way through temple, tower, and palace

Reading these, I confess to being gobsmacked like an innocent subway rider who is knocked over by a blind Sumo wrestler.

Academia: Hotbed of bad writing

Finding bad writing in academia is a piece of cake, like shooting fish in a barrel, or something like a walk in the park. Once upon a time, the journal Philosophy and Literature honored the most indecipherable, stylistically abominable writing in an annual contest. In 1998 the award went to Judith Butler for this brain-twisting concoction published in Diacritics:

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.”

Sarah Sweeting writing for The Walrus noted that this kind of writing has often been embraced in the academic world. She said, “If I had won Philosophy and Literature’s Bad Writing Contest it would have been a clear and reassuring sign that I was going places — places with tenure.”

Building a career as a bad writer

Don’t fear bad writing the way you might fear a Sasquatch climbing into your bedroom window and stealing your mobile phone. First, that Sasquatch probably doesn’t fit through your bedroom window. Second, he likely doesn’t want your mobile phone.

Writer, producer, and actor Dan Harmon said, “Good writers hate bad writing but hating bad writing doesn’t make you good. Writing badly does.”

Case in point: Raymond Chandler confessed to his early ineptitude, as quoted in Crime Reads.

When I started out to write fiction, I had the great advantage of having absolutely no talent for it… If more than two people were in a scene, I couldn’t keep one of them alive… I couldn’t get a character in or out of a room… I couldn’t even get his hat off… A crowded canvas just bewildered me. Give me two people snotting each other and I’m happy.”

So, what’s the takeaway from this journey through the nine levels of hell to enlightenment? William Faulkner said it best: “Get it down. Take chances. It may be bad, but that’s the only way you can do anything really good.”

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8 COMMENTS

  1. Sorry but I really like this one. It doesn’t feel like bad writing for me. It’s funny. “I felt a nameless dread. Well, there probably is a long German name for it, like Geschpooklichkeit or something, but I don’t speak German. Anyway, it’s a dread that nobody knows the name for, like those little square plastic gizmos that close your bread bags. I don’t know the name for those either. –Jack Bross, Chevy Chase

    But I don’t like this one at all: “He lapped up the water like a rabid dog, each swallow making him feel like he was being reborn into the world.” it’s close to cliché.

    To conclude, when I was young, I loved Jerry Lewis. This may hint at my citizenship.

    Whatever floats your boat…

  2. Even a simile that seems good can be treacherous. For example, “He lapped up the water like a rabid dog.” One symptom of rabies is hydrophobia — fear of water. That poor dog wouldn’t be lapping anything.

  3. The gregarious good, the bawdy blindly bohemian bad along with the urgent unanimous crowd of ugly ogres echoed in my mind like laconic lepers, bouncing in haphazard hopscotch hassles between my earlobes pretending to be nurturing, somewhat neurotic, neurons..

  4. In as much as you have provided space for comments from perfect strangers and the rest of us, I must say that in respect to specific goals, a constant flow of ineffective information, or the opposite there of, may or may not maximize the probability of writing project success and may or may not minimize the cost and time required for meeting the philosophy of commonality and standardization of current or obsolete rules of grammar and the written demonstration thereof.

  5. I clutched the lighter downside up and flicked a fiery, fierce flame, unfreezing my furious, frost- frazzled fingers and feeling.

  6. If you like the Bulwer-Lytton contest, I recommend the many Liturgical Mysteries by Mark Schweizer. The main character has purchased Raymond Chandler’s typewriter and tries to channel the hard-boiled style in his writing hobby. But he also aspires to win the Bulwer-Lytton contest, having achieved honorable mention. His detective story snippets (a sideshow to the very humorous and well-written mysteries) are hilariously bad. Full disclosure: I know good bad writing when I see it–I won the 2018 Bulwer-Lytton Crime and Detective category with this: He glanced at his unsuspecting guests, his slight smile hiding his hateful mood, his calm eyes hiding his evil intentions, and his smooth skin hiding his tensed muscles, skeletal structure, and internal organs.

    • Yes, yes, Mark Schweizer gave us some unforgettable lines. I just wish I could remember one of them.

      A strong vote for Mark Schweizer!

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