The Bad Writing Contest
“It was a dark and stormy night …”
Writing the opening sentence of a novel is no easy task. In this class activity you will work in small groups to come up with the most melodramatic, silly, or groan-worthy first sentence of a novel. The glorious award that awaits you is eternal fame and the accolades of your fellow students. Or, if you have a nice teacher, you may receive an actual prize. 🙂
Here are just some of the benefits of doing this exercise:
- Recognize the value of opening lines
- Realize the importance of genre
- Learn about syntax and grammar
- Practice brainstorming
Your entry should be the opening sentence of a novel (not an actual novel – you make it up). It should not exceed 250 words (that would be a pretty long sentence), and it should be good at being awful. Try make it funny in some way. It will help if you try and mock specific generic conventions (e.g., those of detective fiction, or of harlequin romance). Watch out for grammatical mistakes such as run-on sentences.
Here are some ridiculous opening sentences:
I came upon him in a twilight clearing in the heart of the forest, his body glistening with sweat, tired from the chase, and I was glad to see him slurping the blood of a fawn–teeth white as pearls, blood red as apples–for I was under the impression that he never did any homework for our vampire class.
Detective Inkling was pretty sure he knew where this story is going, but you’ll have to read on to find out.
During the day, Sarah was an evolutionary biologist, but at night she did everything she could to avoid passing on her DNA to future generations.
For more examples, and a chance to enter an official bad writing contest, check out the Bulwer Lytton Fiction Contest.
Making It Personal
For this exercise, you’ll be writing a paragraph about a term used by environmentalists. Some of these terms are so common that we don’t stop to think what they really mean. Your challenge is to explain the concept in a way that is personal, clear, intriguing, and insightful. Don’t just rely on boring definitions, abstract language, or scientific explanations. Make the subject your own and write something creative and coherent.
The following writing sample explains what is meant by a carbon footprint. The writer hooks us with references to myths and monsters, and explains the concept using clear language and vivid imagery.
For some reason, the term carbon footprint reminds me of Bigfoot or the Yeti, fabled monsters known for the size of their tracks. I imagine future visitors to earth will marvel at the mysterious carbon footprints that tell the story of our extinction. Except that a carbon footprint is not easy to visualize. It is simply an estimation of the amount of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide and methane) we emit in our daily lives. The fact that a carbon footprint is merely an approximation delights climate change skeptics, yet this is a mythology I can believe in. It is not difficult to see that my activities have an effect on the planet. As long as I depend on sustainable resources, my carbon emissions will remain close to zero, but when I use electronic devices, travel by car, or consume imported foods, my carbon footprint gets bigger. In this sense, anything that produces carbons has a footprint, whether is a person, a product, or a people. This makes it easy to blame others, as I did not captain the ship that transported the bananas from Ecuador or the suit made in China. Our footprints, like our shadows, overlap, but that is no excuse for inaction. I personally need to reduce my electricity bill, insulate my home properly, avoid air condition, limit air travel, and so much more. It’s impossible to avoid some impact on the environment, but I don’t want to leave a carbon footprint of monstrous proportions. Or, if I must be a monster, let me be a monopod, that mythological being described by medieval travelers, a creature typically found lounging on his back, using his single large foot as a sort of umbrella to ward off the heat of the sun.
Pick Your Topic
Please choose one of the following concepts. Then do a bit of research and write your paragraph.
- Carbon offsets
- Consumer goods
- Fuel poverty
- Greenhouse effect
- Shared Commuting (carpool, ride share, carshare)
- Traffic calming
- World Bicycle Day
- Zero waste
The Devil’s Dictionary
In 1911, the American writer and satirist Ambrose Bierce published The Devil’s Dictionary, a collection of amusing and witty definitions. Here is a small selection:
ADMIRATION, n. Our polite recognition of another’s resemblance to ourselves.
CHILDHOOD, n. The period of human life intermediate between the idiocy of infancy and the folly of youth—two removes from the sin of manhood and three from the remorse of age.
GRAMMAR, n. A system of pitfalls thoughtfully prepared for the feet for the self-made man, along the path by which he advances to distinction.
HAND, n. A singular instrument worn at the end of the human arm and commonly thrust into somebody’s pocket.
HOMICIDE, n. The slaying of one human being by another. There are four kinds of homocide: felonious, excusable, justifiable, and praiseworthy, but it makes no great difference to the person slain whether he fell by one kind or another—the classification is for advantage of the lawyers.
IMMIGRANT, n. An unenlightened person who thinks one country better than another.
PATIENCE, n. A minor form of despair, disguised as a virtue.
TWICE, adv. Once too often.
Perhaps Bierce was destined to write this work. He was the tenth of thirteen children and all their names all began with an A (Abigail, Amelia, Ann, Addison, Aurelius, etc.). Let’s hope his parents were not planning to get to the rest of the alphabet.
Writing is a continual process of defining one’s meaning. We distinguish between denotation and connotation, we drill down for an etymology, we single out a nuance or application. It is a real skill to capture the essence of a word in a startling manner. Sometimes a witty definition is more revealing than an exact one.
Here, for instance, is how G. K. Chesterton defines a Puritan, in his book on George Bernard Shaw: “A Puritan meant originally a man whose mind had no holidays.” Chesterton could have simply written that a Puritan must always remain vigilant or serious, but the effect would not have been the same.
Bierce’s definitions, sampled above, also function as a form of social satire. The definition of grammar reveals how an artificial body of rules about language hurts the aspirations of people without formal education. His definition of immigrant makes us think about the motivation for moving to another country.
Be careful though: some definitions have lost their originality and now sound hackneyed. Nobody wants to hear that a dog is man’s best friend, or that laughter is the best medicine.
In this exercise, you’re asked to provide interesting and clever definitions of the following words (your instructor might provide additional ones):
- Gap year
As you work on these, first consult the traditional dictionary definitions. Then, see if you can’t come up with something more clever. Have fun!
A pataphor is an absurd version of a metaphor. To create a pataphor, take a metaphor and treat it as a literal reality. Then elaborate.
Here is an example:
Metaphor: Whenever Professor McDonald had to lecture at 8:00 in the morning, he was a bear.
Pataphor: Whenever Professor McDonald had to lecture at 8:00 in the morning, he was a bear. Coming out of hibernation, he would stretch and yawn, and roll around in a playful way. Then, noticing the rumbling in his stomach, he inevitably turned to look at his pupils, frightened in their desks, and devour one or two of the slower ones for breakfast.
In other words, a pataphor functions at two removes from the real world. Just as pataphysics (or ’pataphysics if one insists on the apostrophe) is the surrealist version of metaphysics, so the pataphor allows one to explore alternate universes, do thought experiments, and simply be creative.
For this writing exercise, challenge yourself by writing short snippets based on an interesting pataphor. Here are a couple more examples to get you started:
“You are the apple of my eye,” whispered Jordan.
“I wish you hadn’t said that,” said Lucy, peering out through Jordan’s eyelashes. “My new living quarters are somewhat spartan.”
“Don’t worry,” said Jordan. “The harvest is not far away. You look delicious, my dear.”
Lucy blushed. “You’re making me all mushy inside.”
“Please don’t. I wouldn’t want to toss you straight into the compost bin.”
Our news coverage begins with the election, and it is increasingly apparent that the Liberal Party has no grassroots movement. They’ve tried stronger doses of fertilizer, but that has only left some of their supporters in the hospital with first-degree burns. By contrast, so many farmers support the Conservatives that journalists have complained about the smell of manure at their town halls.
And that’s how you write a pataphor. Have fun!
A Spoof Essay
For this exercise, please analyze the spoof essay provided below. Why is it so bad? What are some things to avoid in your own writing? You can discuss this in a class or go through it by yourself. If you need some help, check out our video on essay structure, which uses this essay as an example of what not to do.
Thomas Kennedy Brown
Professor Judy Sallow
28 Nov. 2020
The Death Penalty
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to sit in an electric chair? It is probably not a fun time. If I were going to be executed, I would probably choose the guillotine, though I’m not sure if anyone still uses it. At least it’s quick and painless. Well, not entirely painless, because spectators can throw things at you (like rotten tomatoes or eggs). In other words, there is no humane way to kill people. In this essay, I will be arguing that the death penalty should be abolished because it is cruel, it does not deter people from committing crimes, and there is good evidence to suggest that criminals can be reformed.
In the first place, the death penalty is cruel. The US Constitution forbids cruel and unusual punishment. This applies to the death penalty in two ways: “The Eighth Amendment suggests that the death penalty cannot be applied to lesser crimes and it cannot involve unnecessary suffering in its application” (Finch 99). It would be cruel to apply the death penalty if I committed some minor crime, like jaywalking for instance. Moreover, since there is no way to execute people without causing them considerable discomfort, the death penalty is cruel. The dictionary defines cruelty as “a cruel behaviour or action,” which clearly shows that cruelty is not a good thing. For that reason, the death penalty should be abolished.
In the second place, the death penalty does not prevent people from committing crimes. This is called the Deterrence Theory of Punishment. In the words of Fillmore Ginantonic, “Criminals commit crimes because of opportunity, and no threat of punishment will change that” (15). There is a famous case that proves this. In California v. Bagby, the defense showed that Bagby stole some lingerie for his wife with no thoughts about potential punishment. He was in fact more worried about what his wife would do to him if he did not bring home the right size. We have seen, then, that deterrence does not work.
Lastly, most criminals can be reformed. This is called the Rehabilitation Theory. According to Wikipedia, the idea is to prevent criminal “recidivism.” This word comes from Latin and means that people repeat a crime. Thus, the Rehabilitation Theory means that people can be rehabilitated so that they will not repeat their crimes. I strongly believe in this theory.
This essay has shown that the death penalty is wrong. It is cruel and does not prevent people from doing bad things. Instead, criminals should be reformed. This is much more humane. To quote Mahatma Gandhi, “Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”
In the 1950’s Paul McHenry Roberts published an essay called “How To Say Nothing in 500 Words.” It remains an insightful critique of bad writing, and it also contains a hilarious spoof essay explaining why football should be abolished. It’s easy enough to find on the internet, so check it out.
The License Plate Game
Longer Writing Assignments
Short and Easy Exercises
Since practice is perfect, we thought we would compile some fun writing exercises to try out. Please note that this section of our website is new and we will be adding to it over time!