Charles Petzold

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.