The Wrong Stuff Bad Writing Contest!

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.)

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3 Responses to The Wrong Stuff Bad Writing Contest!

  1. mary.stachyra says:

    It’s not the worst article in the world, but I found this on the Atchison Globe’s website:

    “Another two stories Mr. Hauschild has heard offer different versions that it was buried next to the bank building, which would have been in a vacant lot at that time.

    He said one version indicated the capsule was buried on the south side of the building, and the other story implies burial to the north.

    The 150th capsule contains Lancaster pupils’ artwork; Globe issues and inserts; Newsleaf copies; a city newsletter; Sept. 13-14 events list copies; list of 135 event attendees and their addresses; a 2008 almanac and “Old Farmers Almanac;” Lancaster Oil and Jackson Farmers Co-operative calendars; Embarq telephone directory; Lancaster Cafe menu and baseball cap; 30 pictures of Lancaster; an October “TV Guide;” St. John’s Lutheran Church history; 150th birthday T-shirt; Lancaster Oil coffee cup; Scholz Insurance football; United Bank of Kansas baseball cap; Atchison County Farm Bureau, Skinny Minny’s, Lancaster Bank and Scholz Insurance pens, pencils and letter openers; Globe 1958 edition news article; Sept. 14 joint church service items; Rural Water District No. 5 letterhead; 2008 coinage; and a Lancaster Party CD.”

  2. heath.meriwether says:

    A good example of bad writing, whether it’s from Kansas or Hell’s Kitchen. The passive voice creates slow, confused sentences. Better to use active voice and keep it simple: Hauschild heard the time capsule was buried either just south or north of the bank.

    Isn’t that all the reader needs to know? We bog down when we include too much information. The result too often is confused, awkward sentences. Read what you’ve written. If it seems tangled, it is. Simplify. Make clear. The reader will thank you.

  3. heath.meriwether says:

    Speaking of ungrammatical sentences (see above), let’s make it: The result too often is a confused, awkward sentence.

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