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When it was bad, it was very, very bad

Good writing is all alike; each piece of bad writing is distinctive in its own way. My own little corner of the world of letters is journalistic prose, specializing in the substandard variety. But bad journalistic writing, widespread as it is, is but one species of bad writing.

Dark and stormy: Sue Fondrie, an associate professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, is the winner of the grand prize in this year’s Bulwer Lytton Fiction Contest.

Her winning entry: “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.”

Winning entries for the minor prizes can be found here, though to my mind they all seem a little forced or strained, unlike the natural bad writing that editors encounter every day.

Dark but not stormy: Here is one from the Philosophy and Literature Bad Writing Contest of 1998. The winner was a sentence from an article in Diacritics by Professor Judith Butler:

“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.”

Of course, virtually any sentence from published academic writing in the humanities or social sciences could be substituted here, viz., the Postmodernism Generator.

The good and the bad: Bryan Garner, who is planning a book on good and bad business writing, would like to have examples of each kind. You can send them to him at He gives an assurance that names will be changed.

Your examples? I suppose I ought to make a similar request that you send in samples of the best and worst journalistic writing you encounter, but I’d really much rather see the bad.

Random reflection: On this date, July 26, in 1948, President Harry S. Truman signed the order desegregating the U.S. military. Truman came in for considerable criticism from people who said that this order would cause major disruption in the military because white and black soldiers simply could not serve together. Anybody think this sounds familiar?



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:34 AM | | Comments (1)


Is there any money in making submissions. Between my liberal arts and legal educations I should clean up, if there is money in it.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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