Alana Atwood And The Awful Very Bad No Good Sentence

editingMy friend Alana Atwood, who edits a prestigious Seattle-based literary magazine, recently received a submission that was poorly written.

Is this unusual? Not at all. Editors get second-rate submissions all the time. Screening out the crap is just part of the job.

It’s also important to note that everybody starts out writing poorly. (Look up some of Hemingway’s early unpublished prose if you don’t believe me.) The only real difference between good writers and bad writers is that the good ones hang in there, learn from their mistakes, and get better.

Of course, one of the pitfalls of being a beginning writer is not knowing that you can’t actually write yet. You think your work is terrific, but you’re kidding yourself. So you end up sending amateurish garbage to an editor.

Will the editor zing it right back, with an honest “This sucks! The time I spent reading this drivel, is, regrettably, ten minutes of my life that I’ll never get back again. Please learn how to write before sending me anything else?”

Of course she won’t. That would be rude. Instead, she’ll return it with a polite “Sorry, this doesn’t work for us.”

How bad was the essay Alana received? It began with this sentence:

“Suselah! How’s my girl?” he would inevitably retort as he hoisted me into his sinewy arms, the waft of a cigar sweet as grass on his lips.”

The rest of the writing was similarly not-ready-for-prime-time, so  Alana rejected the piece with her usual prompt and polite form letter.

No big deal. So far, business as usual. But? Suselah pushed back. Her response to Alana’s “Thanks, but it’s not right for us?”

“I can’t imagine a more fitting entry,” she emailed Alana, “by a published author with clear Seattle connections, and topical to a tee, but hey, your call.”

“If it’s my call,” fumed Alana to herself, “Why the hell are you giving me shit about it?” After which she logged onto Facebook to express her frustration, posting both the sentence and the writer‘s response to its rejection on her personal page.

Yeah… that is not my favorite sentence, a friend quickly agreed.

To which another responded:

It’s almost great in the brazenness of the overwriting.

Alana’s Facebook pals, many of whom are writers and editors, all agreed that this was, indeed, a stinker of a sentence. So much so that the Comments Thread quickly turned into an impromptu game of “What Is Wrong With This Line?”

I don’t understand. How did he get grass on his lips?

Maybe the retort backfired on him?

Good writing, in this century, should not contain vocabulary you do not use in everyday conversation. Retort? Hoisted? Sinewy? Waft? Give me a break.

She needs to look up the word “retort” before ever using it again.

I enjoy chewing on sweet grass myself from time to time. But I’m always careful to clean my face afterwards.

There’s no such thing as a cigar that smells as sweet as grass.

Kittens are much sweeter than grass. How about “the waft of cigar smoke as sweet as kittens on his lips?”

Sinewy. (Shudder)

Never mind the rest. I was put off by ‘Suselah” from the get-go.

Alana was consoled (and amused) by our responses, and we all had fun dumping on a bad sentence.

But — was it okay for Alana to post Suseleh’s sentence on Facebook?

She didn’t post it on the Facebook page of the literary magazine itself. Nor did she identify the line’s author. She didn‘t log on to proclaim “Suselah can’t write and here’s the proof.”

Besides, it’s a dirty little publishing secret that editors routinely trade around and snicker at examples of particularly bad writing. Part of the fun of editing a litmag is laughing at bad prose.

And it’s not just editors who enjoy poking fun at bad writing. There’s even a yearly competition, the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction contest, in which authors compete to write the world’s most awful first line. Such as? Here’s one of this year’s winners:

When private detective Flip Merlot spotted the statuesque brunette seated at the bar of his favorite watering hole, he was drawn to her like a yellow cat to navy blue pants, and when he sidled up next to her he felt fuzzy all over, kind of like dark blue corduroys get when they’re matted with yellow cat hair.

Of course, the folks who submit their work to BLFC are trying to craft bad sentences; Suselah was able to write a genuine clunker without even trying.

What exactly does an editor like Alana owe a writer? Is she required to spell out exactly what is wrong with each submission, thus helping the would-be-writer become a better writer? Not at all. She just has to select the best from what is submitted, then work with those writers to polish and improve their work as necessary. The rest can be dismissed with a form letter.

Nobody but Alana’s friends could read that Facebook post. Needless to say, Suselah isn’t one of them. But if she were somehow able to read our critique, would she learn from it and thus become a better writer?

When it comes to learning to write, anything is possible. I’m a writing coach. I’ve worked with more than one writer who started out writing self indulgent poop and ended up being published in large circulation magazines.

All it takes is perseverance and the ability to learn from constructive criticism.

And that’s the problem. Suseleah didn’t want to learn. She wanted to defend bad writing, the one thing a good editor cannot tolerate. Blasting Suselah’s sentence on Face book — rather than blasting the writer herself via email — was, I believe, a reasonable response. It was a coping mechanism for Alana, and a bit of harmless fun for the rest of us.

How would Suselah feel about all of this if she knew?

With any luck, she never will.


(Roz Warren is the author of OUR BODIES, OUR SHELVES: LIBRARY HUMOR.)

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21 thoughts on “Alana Atwood And The Awful Very Bad No Good Sentence”

  1. So, what I’m hearing is I shouldn’t start my next novel with, “It was a dark and stormy night.” 😉

  2. Taking criticism of your baby is always hard. But do you want your baby to never grow up, or worse, grow up to be a two-headed troll? I think not. When I was in school, one of our professers collected bad leads. The all-time winner? “Early this morning a man ran off the road with his truck and burst into flames.” It’s got everything! Action. Adventure. Yeah. The author didn’t get it either…

    1. If you’re going to start a story with a declarative sentence designed to jolt the reader into attention, you had better be a literary genius like Kafka (“When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.”).

  3. I guess I’ll have to think of a new pseudonym for submitting writing to editors!

  4. It’s a rough world out there…better tough it up or get eaten by the sharks I say. It’s fair game on FB like it or not it seems. Take your feelings and leave them curbside.

  5. “Suselah,” whoever she is, has to learn to deal with rejection if she is going to submit her writing to literary magazines (or publishers, for that matter). Instead of going on the defensive in that passive-aggressive way, “Suselah” should have asked herself what needed improvement.

    I am not sure that it was a good thing for the editor to post that sentence on Facebook, even though she did not use the author’s name and did not post it on the magazine’s page. When we post something on the Internet, we never know who might end up seeing it.

    The editor did have a right, though, to be upset by the author’s reaction and having a “let’s poke fun at this line” session with friends is fine, as long as there is no chance that it will come back to bite her on the rear.

    By the way, I am a past winner of a “Dishonorable Mention” in the Bulwer-Lytton contest! Would you believe that it’s HARD to write a bad opening sentence when you are actually TRYING to do so.

  6. I have to admit, I was gone by the time I read, “Suselah.” When I was a new writer, I would have appreciated a form letter that said, “I know you THINK you’re a good writer, and maybe you are, but go back to school, take some English composition classes, read some writers’ magazines, and write, write, write!”

  7. I’m not sure I’d share the poor writing to mock it on Facebook. I’m pretty well convinced that anything you put on the Internet might as well be skywriting.

  8. I might have changed a few things while maintaining the ridiculosity (I made that up) of the sentence. Suseleh needs to learn a few things, I’d say.

  9. We all need to get our frustrations out some how. Your friend was just venting privately with friends, at times we all need to do that.

  10. Personally I think it was very mean to put the person’s name on the disparaging FB post. What was the point of doing that? Privacy settings or not surely anyone with a job in the world of media has to know that the writer could find out what was said about her/him. Also the submission was sent to the editor at her business address I assume so it’s unethical to take her business issues and air them on her personal FB page. Many companies would terminate an employee for doing such a thing and violating someone’s privacy. I see the fault here being in the editor, not the aspiring writer. The editor cares about her privacy; not the privacy of others.

    1. In the post she says she didn’t identify the writer. She posted the line the writer used. And it would have been worse had it been on the literary magazine page. This was a personal page and the writer was not her friend.

    2. But she didn’t include “Suselah’s” real name. “Nor did she identify the line’s author.” I agree that had she done so, it would have been wrong.

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