We like to celebrate good writing and reporting in this space. But there’s much to learn, too, from bad writing. Many of you probably are aware of the annual Bulwer-Lytton Bad Writing Contest, which parodies the 19th century English novelist who penned the immortal words, “It was a dark and stormy night.” For your reading enjoyment, here’s the winning 2008 entry from Garrison Spik:
Theirs was a New York love, a checkered taxi ride burning rubber, and like the city their passion was open 24/7, steam rising from their bodies like slick streets exhaling warm, moist, white breath through manhole covers stamped “Forged by DeLaney Bros., Piscataway, N.J.”
Man, that’s baaad, as in good. Spik weaved mixed metaphors, overheated modifiers and extraneous detail into one masterful run-on sentence. Here’s a list of previous winners. In another bad writing contest sponsored by the scholarly journal, Philosophy and Literature, I found a winner who actually meant to write what she did. It came from Judith Butler, a professor of rhetoric and comparative literature at the University of California at Berkeley:
The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relationships 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.
Huh??? It should be noted that an admirer called Butler “one of the 10 smartest people on the planet.” That may well be but her impenetrable writing can’t be one of the reasons. Your first responsibility as a writer is to be understood. That requires simple (not simplistic), powerful language that is clear to the reader. You’ve got to know where you’re headed or your reader never will. You can’t hide behind jargon and fancy words.
It’s probably too easy for a journalist to beat up on academic writing. That’s where I’d love to get your help. Based on your reading of journalism in all its forms, please post your favorite examples of bad writing for a Wrong Stuff contest that could help us understand how to avoid them in our efforts . Let’s exclude our CUNY colleagues from this contest even while we know we’re capable of similar atrocities. There’ll be a suitable prize for the best of the worst examples (It will not be a copy of the collected essays of Judith Butler.)