11 Bulwer Lytton Competition

Arley Cruthers

Activity Guidelines

Suggested Course Level

Lower level undergraduate

Activity Purpose

  • Students will explore common style and tone or grammar mistakes in a fun, low-stakes manner.
  • Students will also give themselves permission to write badly.

Materials Required

  • Small prizes
  • Pen and paper

Activity Instructions

  1. The Bulwer Lytton competition, (named after the author who wrote the line “It was a dark and stormy night..”), asks participants to intentionally write the worst first line of a novel.
  2. First, design a lesson that showcases common style and tone issues, such as wordiness, passive voice, weak verbs, negative emphasis, slang, clichés, etc.
  3. Ask students to make a list of the style and tone issues you discussed (or create a handout with these listed).
  4. Then, explain that we are going to have a Bulwer Lytton competition and there will be a prize for the person who can write the worst possible sentence. Go to https://www.bulwer-lytton.com/  to find past winners to show students an example.
  5. Give students 5 – 8 minutes to write their sentence. Encourage them to edit their sentence to make it even worse and see if they can include all of the issues we discussed. To encourage students to share, you should write a sentence as well.
  6. Offer a prize to the first student who volunteers to read their sentence. I sometimes bring small chocolates to give everyone who shares something.
  7. You can vote in a couple of ways. Either, you can tape the submissions up on the wall/board and give students a sticker and ask them to put the sticker on the sentence they want to vote for, or you can ask students to write down the name of the person they want to vote for on a piece of paper and hand it in to you.

Debrief Questions / Activities

  • How did it feel to write badly?
  • How did you compose your sentence?
  • Did you edit it?
  • What was the hardest part of this activity?

Additional Resources / Supplementary Resources

Tags: writing mechanics, grammar, style, tone, concision, individual, whole class, self-reflection, game


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