Writing Exercise: Ruin Someone Else’s Work

Pictured: what you want your students to do. Metaphorically. (image credit: seton.co.uk)

If you have not yet made acquaintance with Star War the Third Gather: Backstroke of the West, am I ever about to enrich your life.

Here’s what happened: in 2005, Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith landed in movie theaters, and the public resoundingly responded “eh.”  Shortly thereafter, someone translated a bootleg of the movie into Chinese.  A blogger named Jeremy Winterson found the Chinese bootleg, complete with machine-translated English subtitles.  The results are a sight to behold.  I will actually defend Revenge of the Sith more than most people will, but given the choice, Backstroke of the West is probably a more entertaining two and a half hours.

I’ve adapted Backstroke of the West into an exercise for my students, designed to make them think about how to write well by forcing them to write poorly.

Step One: Each student must find a snippet of excellent writing.  They can use a book they’ve read for your class, but I prefer that they find a clipping from a newspaper or magazine article, because they’re more likely to follow the plain style.  Each snippet should be no more than a short-to-medium paragraph; quality, not quantity, is key. For example purposes, I’ll use one we all know, by reputation if not by direct contact:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.  

Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

Even if you’re not a Dickens fan – and to be honest, I’m usually not – this is an elegant, incisive opening to an elegant, incisive novel.  My students spent almost twenty minutes this year discussing just these few lines. It relies on a perfectly crafted (though quite long!) sentence and simple imagery to drive its point like a nail into a coffin.

Step Two: Ruin it.

Your students must now take whatever they found and kick it around in the mud for a few hours.  They will be taken aback when you first tell them you want them to write poorly. You may wish to spend a few minutes going over some of ways they can muck it up:

  • Increase the word count by at least 50%
  • Throw in a dozen or so adverbs
  • Get rid of any imagery you find and replace it with something abstract and/or nonsensical (“It smelled like a dumpster on a hot summer day” becomes “Its fragrance was somewhat putrid and was filling everyone’s nose with bad smell particles.”)
  • Replace active verbs with participles and passives.
  • Repeat yourself over and over and over and over.

You must stress that, in their ruination, they are not to use poor grammar.  The grammar must remain as flawless as they can manage.  We do not want to encourage the idea that good writing is nothing more than proper grammar, an understanding of which is necessary but not sufficient.

Here’s what I did to Dickens:

Some people may consider the French Revolution to be the best period in our history; others might say it was the worst period.  It was a time that made many people become more wise, but others unfortunately acted foolishly. It was a very important time when lots of people became more faithful than they had ever been, but other people flatly refused to believe anything they were hearing.  Some said it was a time that would bring great enlightenment, but others were afraid that the people would become more ignorant. People felt hope, but others felt despair. Some people had more than they had ever had before, but others felt that everything had been taken away from them all at once.  Some were so optimistic that they thought it was like being headed straight for heaven, but others were so pessimistic that they warned everyone was heading straight for hell. In other words, everyone was very extreme in their descriptions of that time, as they often are not only during times of change and revolution, but other times as well.

I achieved this clunker simply by following the rules above: more words; more adverbs; nothing concrete when you can be abstract; verbs that stall the thing in its tracks and bring it to a coughing, shuddering halt; and mindless repetition galore.

Students love this part of the exercise.  It’s fun to do what’s normally forbidden!  And at the same time, writing poorly on purpose helps them to learn their own strengths and weaknesses when they’re trying to write well.  Reverse psychology works wonders here.

When everyone has finished crapping all over their chosen excerpt, it’s time to move onto:

Step Three: Trade papers with someone else, and try to fix what was ruined.

Everyone now swaps papers – just their own ruined versions, not the originals – with a classmate.  The classmate’s job is now to read the nonsense his partner wrote, and try to re-create the original from the new, awful version.  Instead of translating into Chinese and then back to English with hilarious results, the student’s job is to translate into Bad and then back into Good with thought-provoking (and yes, occasionally hilarious) results.

My students liked the Backstroke of the West exercise so much the last time I tried it that they asked to do it again before they started their next paper.  They don’t ask that about practice AP essays.

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