Charles Petzold on writing books, reading books, and exercising the internal UTM

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Very Bad Writing

November 25, 2011
New York, N.Y.

About 35 years ago I picked up a novel from the coffee table in my mother's house and started reading. This particular novel was a big bestseller at the time and I was curious what made it so popular. Sure enough, I discovered a story with the annoying addictiveness of potato chips, and I suspect I finished the whole puffy bag in one sitting.

Towards the end of the novel I encountered a passage that culminated with a sentence that I believed then to be the worst sentence ever to appear in a work of fiction. Today, with 35 additional years of reading behind me, I still agree with that original evaluation.

This particular ghastly sentence does not have the customary characteristics of bad writing — clunky syntax, mixed metaphors, appalling similes, strings of cliches, or inappropriate imagery. Nor is it the work of an amateur. The author only began writing novels in his 50s after a successful career in film and television, and 18 of these novels have their own Wikipedia entries.

Instead, this sentence reveals a tendency for some authors to make everything bigger than life. Characters are always superlatively glamorous, famous, emotional, and consequently more tragic than any real or imaginary person. Everything surrounding these characters has to be as big as they are — homes, cars, careers, love affairs, jewelry. They need to soar to the heights of fame, only to be plunged into the depths of pain and despair, only to rise again to unprecented acclaim.

Making everything bigger than life becomes a lazy habit for these authors. That can result in passages that seem plain and simple but actually reek of horrid writing.

Here then is Sidney Sheldon's A Stranger in the Mirror, the story of comic Toby Temple:

The Friars Club gave a Roast with Toby Temple as the guest of honor. A dozen top comics were on the dais, along with Toby and Jill, Sam Winters and the head of the network that Toby had signed with. Jill was asked to stand up and take a bow. It became a standing ovation.

They're cheering me, Jill thought. Not Toby. Me!

The master of ceremonies was the host of a famous nighttime television talk show. "I can't tell you how happy I am to see Toby here," he said. "Because if we weren't honoring him here tonight, we'd be holding this banquet at Forest Lawn."


"And believe me, the food's terrible there. Have you ever eaten at Forest Lawn? They serve leftovers from the Last Supper."


He turned to Toby. "We really are proud of you, Toby. I mean that. I understand you've been asked to donate a part of your body to science. They're going to put it in a jar at the Harvard Medical School. The only problem so far is that they haven't been able to find a jar big enough to hold it."


When Toby got up for his rebuttal, he topped them all.

Everyone agreed that it was the best Roast the Friars had ever had.

For 35 years, this sentence has given me hope. I know I'm a mediocre writer, but I also know that I would never ever write a sentence as bad as that one.


EVERYONE agreed that it was the BEST?? EVERYONE never agrees. The problem is that Toby "topped them all" is a cheap out - the author should have shown rather than described. What did Toby say that was so clever? Let's hear it so we can judge for ourselves that it "topped them all".

This is just lazy writing - lazy lazy writing. He didn't bother to fully visualize the scene. If this book was a screenplay, he couldn't get away with this.

Sheryl Canter, Fri, 25 Nov 2011 10:47:28 -0500

Prior to reading this passage, it never occurred to me that some people had actually experienced enough Roasts to allow ranking one Roast better than another Roast, or to categorize one particular Roast as the very best of all. — Charles

It's believable that the Friars have regular roasts and these people go to them and can rank the roasts they've been to - that's not the part that bothered me. It was the laziness in setting the scene that bothered me - that was poor writing. The first rule of good fiction is "show, rather than tell".

Sheryl Canter, Fri, 25 Nov 2011 12:41:47 -0500

Thanks for the insightful summary, Sheryl.

"Show, rather than tell". It's not just for fictions, but quite important in many real life scenarios as well.

— bv, Tue, 29 Nov 2011 07:07:33 -0500

Why don't you two get a room? Cripes.

How anyone can obsess over something like this for years, apparently, is beyond me. Go find and read the old Woodford books on commercial writing. The sentence is NO BIG DEAL.

To put it more succinctly: who gives a shit?

BTW, the axiom that "The first rule of good fiction is 'show, rather than tell.'" is bogus and only taught in creative writing classes at CUNY to make it look as if something is being taught.

Tell that rule to Sydney Sheldon's banker. Has anyone ever read Dashiell Hammett or does he suck too along with a million popular writers since who constantly violate that rule?

I'm reminded of the other idiotic axiom. "Tell them what you are going to tell them. Tell them. Tell them what you told them." What a farce. Anyone with any brains walks out on you by the middle of "tell them" since you are beginning to repeat yourself.

With that I exit.


John C. Dvorak, Sat, 31 Dec 2011 12:24:59 -0500

I assumed he left the rebuttal unsaid because, given the size reference, it was some obvious brag on the size of his "manhood". :^\

— Jack Walker, Tue, 10 Jan 2012 20:56:15 -0500

Reminds me of the last sentence in the story of Lardass Hogan. "A complete and total Barf-A-Rama."

— Scott Smith, Thu, 9 Feb 2012 12:15:04 -0500

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