Bad Writing Contest

Issue 11 and Volume 107.

Those who write for a living, even some of us who write on technical matters, enjoy reading the results of San Jose State University’s annual Bulwer-Lyton Fiction Contest, named for Victorian novelist Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, one of whose novels started with the words, “It was a dark and stormy night.” Each year thousands of good writers – or at least writers who think they are – submit intentionally dreadful opening paragraphs that might constitute the first words of imaginary bad novels. The idea is to break as many rules of good writing as possible, creating a passage that is as unintentionally funny as it is cumbersome.

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We all know that engineers, scientists and managers often produce technical copy that is “grammatically convoluted” at best, and downright awful at worst. Here’s your chance to submit something you think would qualify for the Technical Writing equivalent of the Bulwer-Lyton Fiction Contest. Maybe it’s the 60-word title of a technical paper, or the first line of a paper abstract addressing a particularly obscure subject, or the lawyer-ese language embedded in a certain section of an equipment warranty document. We’ll take care to not reveal the original source, especially if it’s something you yourself have written. We’ll cross our fingers and hope you don’t submit something printed in the pages of Power Engineering. Entries can be sent to [email protected]

To provide a flavor for what qualifies for the Bulwer-Lyton Fiction Contest, below is the original culprit and then the winner of the Detective Story Category for 2003.

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.”

-Edward George Bulwer-Lytton,
Paul Clifford (1830)

2003’s Winner in the Detective Story Category:

Detective Inspector Mike Norman slipped six fingers into his overcoat pocket, five of them clad in a latex glove and attached to his palm, while the sixth was wrapped in a plastic evidence bag and apparently belonged to the kidnapped pianist Ricardo Moore, or, as it now seemed likely, the kidnapped ex-pianist Ricardo Moore.