Monday, 29 August 2011


You probably saw this announcement of the winner of the Bulwer-Lytton contest for bad writing. The winner - and note that this is for deliberate bad writing! - was American academic, Sue Fondrie, for this very short but very awful sentence:
"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."
It illustrates two things. (Well, two for starters.)

First, one of the most common problems I see in the work of aspiring writers is over-writing, and particularly the horrible use of similes. And wow, is this a horrible simile! Similes should only be used when needed. Similes must enrich; they must give a sense of, "AH! Now I can picture that. Now I can feel it in my heart." If something is clear and obvious and familiar already, it doesn't need a simile to enhance it.

Good similes hit us in the heart. Bad ones grip us somewhere nearer the bowels.

What does a good simile look like? There's an example I use and I apologise to the writer in one of my workshops who wrote this, because I can't remember who it was and therefore can't credit her. If she sees this, I hope she will tell me!

She was describing a funeral procession going up a hillside in Sicily (I think) and she used the image of "a black centipede against the white hillside". It's perfect - apt, necessary, enriching. She doesn't need to say "crawling" or "winding" because we already know those things about centipedes. And that's the point about writing: every word you use brings more than simply that word to your reader's mind. The word brings with it a whole cohort of attached and unavoidable meanings.

And that is the second point: the writer's magic weapon. Every time we use a word, the reader or listener pictures it, and pictures it along with a load of aspects of that word or image. (I'm going to blog further about that magic writing weapon soon.) This is an incredibly important point to remember: every word you use has more power than you think, and that power is one you must control. Bad similes are examples of very poor weapon control by the writer.

So, let's go over that awful simile and you'll see why understanding points 1 and 2 will show you exactly why it's so wrong.
  • "mind turned like the vanes" - how does this help? Can you picture a mind turning like vanes? Do you not already know what it feels like when thoughts come fast? So, neither necessary nor apt.
  • "wind-powered turbine" - so, now we have a wind-turbine in our mind, and it is so not helping. Neither necessary nor apt.
  • "chopping her ... thoughts into bloody pieces" - why bloody? How does it help the image to have thoughts becoming physical things that can be chopped? Are we any closer to the desired meaning?
  • "her sparrow-like thoughts" - with sparrows in our minds we're now thinking of aspects of sparrows: small, brown, chirping, common, bird. 
  • "bloody pieces that fell onto a growing pile" - and the sparrows in our mind are now chopped into bloody pieces. We are further from the desired meaning than ever. And feeling sick. Besides, while you can have a pile of chopped birds, you can't really have a growing pile of thoughts.
  • "of forgotten memories" - why? Why is her pile of "forgotten memories" growing during this small moment of wind-turbine-like thinking? Are they immediately forgotten as soon as they hit the pile? How? Why? WTF is going on?
In short, far from being closer to understanding (which is the whole point of a simile), we are completely confused, as our brains struggle to process the chopped birds and blood all over the hillside where the wind-turbine sits.

But I am very glad that Sue Sondrie wrote this simile because I can now use it: when I do workshops, I'm always looking for examples of bad similes (and other horrors) and I find them very difficult to invent. So, please help me! Can you give me examples (with permission to use them) of poor similes? Not necessarily outrageous ones, but just "not very good" ones, ones that miss the point and don't help.

Bad writing is not as easy as it looks. Congratulations to Sue Fondrie!


catdownunder said...


JO said...

Not a simile - but how can you have a 'forgotten memory' - either it's remembered, or it's forgotten? In the context of this dreadful extract another simile wouldn't be out of place - reaching back for a memory swathed in the fog of time, something like that?

Michele Helene (Verilion) said...

Great post, now all I have to do is follow the advice :)

BigAl said...

Re last post 'swathed in the fog of time, that's a metaphor? Also, how do I get my website in the blog while not blatantly self-promoting? Oooops...

ohthatanya said...

Thanks, Nicola. This post is like a poke in the ribs because I'm desperately trying to wean myself off similies (and not succeeding, clearly).

I think new writers - if I or any of my crit partners are anything to go by - rely on them so much because we don't have the confidence to just SAY something and trust that the reader will get it, so we compare to something else. I know for me, a lot of the writer's I swooned over as a teenager - F. Scott Fitzgerald, Nabokov, Graham Greene - who encouraged me to put pen to paper myself used them so seamlessly that I ran wild with mine. But then I heard a review of a book on the Culture Show last year and the reviewer said, 'There were too many similies. Sometimes more than one a page!' Given I used to use a similie in every other paragraph, it was like a slap around the face! I think of that reviewer when I'm editing now. Less is more, and all that.

Nicola Morgan said...

BigAl - not like that, frankly! Your name at the top of the comment already links to your blog if anyone wants to look at it. I have no objection at all to people mentioning their own blogs if strictly relevant to the post I've spent time writing. As it is... I forgive you. Just. But I came close to deleting the comment.

Also, a simile is a type of mataphor, I'd say. The only difference is the addition of "like" or "as".

And "swathed in the fog of time" has the added horror of being a cliché :) Which would make it eminently eligible for the Bulwer-Lytton - but Jo knew that, which is why she added it. :)

Ohthattanya - glad to be another poke in the ribs!

Sally Zigmond said...

What that deliberately atrocious simile illustrates is that similes (or metaphors) should be simple and hit the spot. If you read one and feel contented by its appropriateness and originality, but it doesn't drag you away from the text or make you stop to work out what the hell is going on (as in the example) then that's a good image.

Anything else is counter-productive.

Dan Holloway said...

For some reason I've found contemporary Japanese writers are the masters of the simile and metaphor - I wonder if it's to do with the way Japanese writing emphasises simplicity and fragility, so there is a technical expertise in achieving fine balance

David Griffin said...

Hi Nicola, while I read your concise, erudite and to-the-point (to the point as the end of a Japanese sword, possibly from a past, long-gone and dynastic century) much enthusiasm and interest swam through my ever-shifting mind as if filled with teeming shoals of silver fish, flashing and darting, like a flock of birds, which might do the same, except birds in the glorious air of a warm summer's day; and thoughts like winding dusty tunnels becoming exposed to the sharp sunlight of a distant, hot land, possibly one which sell fruit and other exotic bric-a-brac in their bustling street markets.


E.Maree said...

Write Badly Well my go-to site for deliberate and amazing examples of terrible writing.

They have a post on 'very accurate' similies here:

Emma Pass said...

I've come to realise that if I have to think too hard about a simile, it probably doesn't need to be there in the first place. Otherwise, it's going to sound as forced as a rhubarb being grown in a coal cellar.

Em-Musing said...

I'm currently reading LIT by Mary Karr and she's the queen of using similes...and all excellent. I'm going to go back and hi-lite everyone for inspiration.

Writer Pat Newcombe said...

The example you used smacked ( is that appropriate?) of a writer trying too hard. It's tooooo easy to fall into that trap and such a cliche!

Read my books; lose ten pounds! said...

ack, i love your blog

Caroline said...

I've used " a miasma of depression came over her". At the time I thought it was quite cringe! Caroline ;o)

XBadger said...

I enjoyed your deconstruction of my Bulwer Lytton entry, Nicola. You probably spent more time on that blog post tearing it apart than I did actually composing it.

Love the blog!

Sue Fondrie