There’s an Evil Hand Afoot

The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest challenges entrants to compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels. Dennis Pearce, the runner up in the 2010 Detective story category, penned the following words:

As Holmes, who had a nose for danger, quietly fingered the bloody knife and eyed the various body parts strewn along the dark, deserted highway, he placed his ear to the ground and, with his heart in his throat, silently mouthed to his companion, “Arm yourself, Watson, there is an evil hand afoot ahead.

Pondering this particularly good piece of bad writing, I found myself wondering what would happen if we used this over-the-top style in scientific articles and protocols. Could it help to draw attention to important details and entertain the reader at the same time? But since the goal of instructional materials is to be clear, concise and to the point, there’s not usually much room for just-for-fun content.

Or is there?

Recently I came across an article about the technical manuals that were produced back in the 80’s by the ACE computer company. One of their user manuals had a section titled “ The Ancestral Territorial Imperatives of the Trumpeter Swan”, which begins as follows:

“Obviously the title of this section is a bit bizarre, its real title should be “Let’s Get Started” but that’s such a disgustingly cute phrase it has no business adorning any page…Some of you would have turned to that section first if you saw “Let’s Get Started” in the table of contents without getting your feet on the ground first by reading the introductory section”

You can read more of the contents of this manual here, and see some comments from users who still have their manuals, long after the company has ceased to exist. The writers of these computer manuals had fun, their readers obviously did too, and their manuals were read. And I’m sure that the section on the trumpeter swan was not easily missed.

Caution: Evil Hand Afoot Ahead

Just for fun, I started to think of possible creative titles for important sections of technical manuals. What about “Once more unto the breach, dear friends”, instead of merely “Introduction”? Or, taking inspiration from the Bulwer-Lytton runner-up, Troubleshooting sections could be renamed “What to Do When There’s an Evil Hand Afoot”. Or how about a section entitled “Herds of Wildebeest”, explaining both expected and unexpected results (in homage to Basil Fawlty’s line “What did you expect to see out a Torquay hotel bedroom window–Herds of Wildebeest sweeping majestically across the plain?”)

Then again maybe not.

Here’s a couple more gems from past Bullwer-Lytton contests.

In a flurry of flame and fur, fangs and wicker, thus ended the world’s first and only hot air baboon ride (Warren Blair, runner up 2009)

The wind dry-shaved the cracked earth like a dull razor–the double edge kind from the plastic bag that you shouldn’t use more than twice, but you do. (Tony Alfieri, runner up, Adventure category 2009)

More Bullwer-Lytton winners.

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Isobel Maciver

Isobel is a graduate of the University of Edinburgh and of Aston University in Birmingham, U.K. She is a technical writer and editor, and is also manager of the Scientific Communications group at Promega. She enjoys writing about issues in science and communication.

4 thoughts on “There’s an Evil Hand Afoot

  1. It was definitely not bad writing, but along the lines of writing for fun I always remembered C.A. Thomas Jr.’s wonderful “The rule of the ring.” I don’t have my copy handy, and the electronic version is behind a paywall, but IIRC it even had the appropriate epigraph from Tolkein … the full citation is:

    C. A. Thomas Jr. (1967) The rule of the ring. Journal of Cellular Physiology 70(S1):13-33 [PMID: 4867582]

  2. Hello Guy,
    I am going to have to hunt down a copy of that and read it. I had not heard of it. I will definitely look it up.

  3. Isobel, that how-to book could be called, “You Wish to Have the Curse Reversed? You’ll Need a Certain Potion First” (with thanks to Stephen Sondheim). While you’re at it, why not rewrite the text of the manual, too? It wouldn’t become any more incomprehensible than it usually is now.

  4. This was quite entertaining. It came to my attention when we said that something was foot at an office. Guess we continued looking for colorful language. On techie manual and instructions I’m sure many have noticed bad translations. I’m sure there’s another funny article in there too. Check out my blog where I write movie reviews, bad puns and more.

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