You might be a winner!: Rewarding bad writing

By August 11, 2011Writing about Writing

Here at the UCWbL, many of us believe in the value of “shitty first drafts,” an idea popularized by the writer Anne Lamott.  When beginning a piece, it’s important not to censor ourselves, but rather rely on later revision to move us forward.   But bad writing does exist, and we’re all guilty of contributing to the problem at one point or another, and at the times when we don’t succeed, it’s usually best to move on.  However, if your trash bin–or your writing career, for that matter–is littered with lamentable failures, sit tight, and don’t empty it out just yet.

Every year, writers from all over the world submit to the Bullwer-Lytton Contest, which awards the worst opening sentence for an imagined work of fiction.  The contest recently announced this year’s winner:  UW-Oshkosh professor Sue Fondrie, for a particulary discombobulating jumble of simile and cliché:

“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 forgotten memories.”

The contest itself takes its name from Edward George Bullwer-Lytton, a 19th century British novelist, whose most famous contribution to modern fiction (from the opening lines of his 1830 novel Paul Clifford) you may well recognize:

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.”

If you’re anxious to submit a jargon-clogged entry of your own, and yet you find yourself suffering from (bad) writer’s block, you can always check out the University of Chicago Writing Program’s Virtual Academic, a random academic sentence generator.  Capable of producing such gems as “the (re)denomination of the eclectic is strictly congruent with the unanalyzed arbitrariness of early modern textuality,” this tool might come in handy if you’re trying to finish your dissertation, though it might launch you as a frontrunner for Denis Dutton’s Bad Writing Contest.

Dutton, a philosopher, rewarded writers who best exemplified the “anxiety-inducing obscurity” that characterizes so much academic writing, and the winners of his prize often included intellectual heavyweights like Judith Butler and Homi Bhabha.  If you’re curious about how your own writing might be received, U of C’s Virtual Academic offers a bonus Virtual Critic service on Thursdays.  Time is running out, so make sure you act now!

Join the discussion 2 Comments

  • David S. says:

    I have to say, I’ve never subscribed to the “bad first drafts” method. My technique is a little more Zen, I guess. I let the idea gestate, and think about it and think about it, then just let it explode on the page. For me, I don’t generally find the revision process creative. I revise as a I compose (kind of a two steps forward, one step back approach). Of course, I understand that just as we all have different products, we all have different procedures.

    • DePaul UCWbL says:

      Hey David,

      My process half-resembles yours. I really like the “two steps forward, one step backward” description–even as I’m writing this post I’ve already revised what I’ve said a couple times. Yet I’m rarely satisfied with the final product once I’ve finished a piece, and I’ve found that knowing this ahead of time, as I’m struggling to write, helps alleviate the burden of getting it perfect the first time around. When visitors to the Writing Center are uncertain of what their own writing process entails, the concept behind “shitty first drafts” is usually a good place to get the conversation started.