George Orwell Helped Me Win a Writing Prize. Here’s How.
Orwell’s indispensable advice on becoming a world-class writer.
Several years ago, as an undergraduate student, I was struggling to write my senior dissertation.
I’d been given a year to write it but, with three months left, I couldn’t see the end in sight.
My task involved distilling the complex and sometimes contradictory writings of the French philosopher, Michel Foucault, into plain English so that a marker who was unfamiliar with his work could understand it.
It sounded like an easy task, but it felt monumental.
I tried to delay writing as much as possible. I’d surf the internet, compulsively clean the house, and make a third cup of coffee even though I was already feeling buzzed — anything to avoid the actual task.
Then, I’d convince myself to write a paragraph. Just one. It didn’t have to be long. It didn’t have to be perfect.
I’d sum up all my courage and force myself to churn out a paragraph.
And then I’d read what I’d written.
My stomach would drop as I realised I’d written utter garbage.
I’d managed to make Foucault’s work even more esoteric than he did.
Two hours spent on a paragraph and I’d written garbage?
Maybe I didn’t understand Foucault well enough?
Maybe I wasn’t cut out for this?
Exasperated, I trudged over to my Supervisor’s office and knocked on his door.
I explained my problem to him — that I just didn’t think I had it in me.
How could I simplify Foucault’s work?
My supervisor, who I believe took some joy in seeing my pain, explained with a smirk on his face that at times like this he’d turn to George Orwell. Specifically, Orwell’s essay, Politics and the English Language.
In fact, he told me that whenever he was writing an academic article, he’d keep a copy of Orwell’s essay next to his computer.
It was his Bible for clear writing, he told me.
And from that day, it became mine as well.
I refer to it constantly. When I’m writing academic papers, when I was writing publications in my previous job as a management consultant, and when I write for myself.
I love taking writing advice from journalists.
They’re trained in churning out high-quality work on demand which can be easily understood by the average person.
But, not only was Orwell a journalist for The Observer and The Tribune, he was also a rare breed of writer who spanned genres: from the reportage of Down and Out in Paris in London, to the modernism of Burmese Days and the science fiction of 1984.
The point is Orwell knew how to write.
And he was passionate about helping others write too.
Here are his six rules for writing:
1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
Orwell believed that metaphors should evoke a visual image — that they should be visceral.
However, through common usage, a number of metaphors become ‘dead’ — they lose their evocative power. These metaphors include: ‘toe the line’, ‘Achilles’ heel’ and ‘swan song’.
Over time, metaphors also become conflated. For example, ‘hone in on’ is a conflation of ‘honing’ and ‘homing in on’.
Or, as Orwell argues, ‘toe the line’ is sometimes spelt as ‘tow the line’.
This demonstrates that these metaphors have lost their original meaning. There’s no point in using them.
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
Using long words, such as ‘phenomenon’ or ‘categorical’ create pretentiousness and vagueness in your writing.
Orwell believes that they’re used to “dress up a simple statement”. It results from laziness and does nothing except confuse the reader, who has been presented with vague language.
A good writer should attempt to explain or describe using clear and simple words. If you don’t, it suggests that you don’t fully understand what you’re describing.
And, if you don’t understand it, you shouldn’t be describing it.
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
Orwell argues that many writers use ‘meaningless words’.
It’s not uncommon to come across entire sentences that lack meaning.
The famous example he gives is the following:
Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.
Do you even understand what this sentence is trying to say?
How would you simplify it?
The point Orwell makes is that we, as modern English writers, don’t choose a word purely for its meaning. Instead, most of us string together long chains of words that have been set in order by precedent. This, for Orwell, is a perversion of the English language.
Orwell suggests we should put off using words as long as possible and get our meaning as clear as possible through pictures and sensations. Afterwards, we can choose, rather than accept, the words that are the most appropriate.
4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
We’re seeing writers use the passive voice more frequently. It omits the essential part of the active voice: the subject. We consequently get sentences like “considerations were made”, rather than “I considered”.
We’re also seeing noun constructions used instead of verbs. For example, it’s become common to say ‘by examination’ instead of ‘by examining’.
I’m sure we can all agree that this robs writing of its power and personality.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
These words also make your writing seem pretentious and confusing to a reader.
Bad writers, especially academic and political writers, believe that Latin or Greek words are more impressive than simple English ones.
These words — like ‘ancien regime’ or ‘deus ex machina’ are used to give off an air of superiority and intelligence.
However, a writer needs to keep their reader in mind.
They need to do whatever they can to ensure a reader can easily understand their point without them needing to constantly re-read sentences to decipher its meaning.
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
This point is quite simple: don’t write rubbish.
That’s Orwell’s most important rule of a writer.
I’ve turned time and time again to this essay, which I believe is the most concise guide to writing clearly and simply.
It helped me write (finish) my dissertation and achieve the highest mark in the cohort. Suffice it to say, if Orwell were still around, I’d owe him a few beers.
Of course, many of you fiction writers out there may argue that you don’t want to be bound by the conventions of a modernist writer like Orwell.
And yes, we’ve seen many successful books which employ dense language that thwarts writing conventions: War and Peace, Ulysses and The Splendour of Portugal, to name a few.
However, I’m sure we can all agree that the principles behind Orwell’s rules can be used by everyone — i.e. we should think carefully about whether we’ve expressed our point in the best way possible instead of being trapped by counter-intuitive writing conventions.
Article originally published on the Writing Cooperative.