Orwell’s 6 writing rules in a nutshell

Effective-Writing-for-the-Settlement-Sector_clip_image002“I don’t have to write like Dickens, I’m a mathematician”, some of you will say. Or, something like, “Effective writing is an inborn gift”.

Lame justifications for poor writing, I’ll answer. I agree you and I are not likely to beat Shakespeare at composing sonnets or write a scrupulous description in Balzac style. But that’s not a weighty argument for us not to at least refine our writing. It’s critical for the most pragmatic reasons, one of them being career goals. Like it or not, it is your cover letter or statement of purpose that will eventually pave your way to a position or matriculation. (Even if you are considered for a “geeky” position where the only language you should know is  C++ or Java).

In fact, writing is not that scary if you know the basic rules. In his article , one of the most influential English novelists of the 20th century, George Orwell, sets 6 “elementary rules” to communicate your ideas more precisely.

1.Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

Here he cites the most common cliches and “dying metaphors” in the press to avoid:  to jackboot, Achilles’ heel, hotbed, melting pot, acid test, veritable inferno.

I’d add: try to avoid any worn-out phrases or idioms (such as to take for granted, let bygones be bygones, don’t judge a book by its cover)- use a simple yet an accurate word to describe a situation if you can’t coin a fresh metaphor.

  1. Never use a long word or phrase where a short one will do.

Prefer the shorter equivalent if there is one:

Compare: in my opinion – I think, necessitate- need,  exhibit a tendency to – to tend, serve the purpose of – aim at etc. NB: “One can cure oneself of the not un- formation by memorizing this sentence: A not unblack dog was chasing a not unsmall rabbit across a not ungreen field” (G. Orwell).

  1. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

Prefer minimalism to lofty phrases. As Ezra Pound said: “Great literature is simply language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree”.

  1. Never use the passive where you can use the active.

Active forms are more forceful. Orwell mentions that it is often politicians who fill their statements with passive forms to manipulate the audience and shirk responsibility for their actions when possible. You want to communicate your idea in a more convincing and effective way, don’t you? Then go for the active voice.

  1. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

Orwell particularly  claims that one doesn’t have to use Latin or Greek phrases such as cul de sac, ancien regime, deus ex machina, mutatis mutandis to sound elegant or sophisticated. On the contrary (or, vice versa :)), giving the text “a pretentious diction” by stuffing it with barbarisms is a sign of poor writing.

  1. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Well, this is the trickiest one . And my favorite. As long as it concerns breaking the rules 🙂

Orwell is not a “language tyrant” despite all his “never” and “always”. To write effectively, you shouldn’t be imprisoned by words. Rather, you should often listen to your “language guts” and bend or break the rules.

P.S. A lyrical digression. No writing is flawless. As I was scribbling down the draft for this entry, I was tempted to use a worn-out phrase and a couple of passive constructions .  Perhaps, the final version is not perfect, either 🙂 But it’s quite normal. Realizing that perfection is impossible, I choose to surrender to ”wabi-sabi” (a Japanese untranslatable word, see rule #5) -finding beauty in imperfections- in my prose particularly.

Lame justifications for poor writing, I’ll answer. I agree you and I are not likely to beat Shakespeare at composing sonnets or write a scrupulous description in Balzac style. But that’s not a weighty argument for us not to at least refine our writing. It’s critical for the most pragmatic reasons, one of them being career goals. Like it or not, it is your cover letter or statement of purpose that will eventually pave your way to a position or matriculation. (Even if you are considered for a “geeky” position where the only language you should know is  C++ or Java).

In fact, writing is not that scary if you know the basic rules. In his article “Politics and the English Language”, one of the most influential English novelists of the 20th century, George Orwell, sets 6 “elementary rules” to communicate your ideas more precisely.

1.Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

Here he cites the most common cliches and “dying metaphors” in the press to avoid:  to jackboot, Achilles’ heel, hotbed, melting pot, acid test, veritable inferno.

I’d add: try to avoid any worn-out phrases or idioms (such as to take for granted, let bygones be bygones, don’t judge a book by its cover)- use a simple yet an accurate word to describe a situation if you can’t coin a fresh metaphor.

  1. Never use a long word or phrase where a short one will do.

Prefer the shorter equivalent if there is one:

Compare: in my opinion – I think, necessitate- need,  exhibit a tendency to – to tend, serve the purpose of – aim at etc. NB: “One can cure oneself of the not un- formation by memorizing this sentence: A not unblack dog was chasing a not unsmall rabbit across a not ungreen field” (G. Orwell).

  1. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

Prefer minimalism to lofty phrases. As Ezra Pound said: “Great literature is simply language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree”.

  1. Never use the passive where you can use the active.

Active forms are more forceful. Orwell mentions that it is often politicians who fill their statements with passive forms to manipulate the audience and shirk responsibility for their actions when possible. You want to communicate your idea in a more convincing and effective way, don’t you? Then go for the active voice.

  1. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

Orwell particularly  claims that one doesn’t have to use Latin or Greek phrases such as cul de sac, ancien regime, deus ex machina, mutatis mutandis to sound elegant or sophisticated. On the contrary (or, vice versa :)), giving the text “a pretentious diction” by stuffing it with barbarisms is a sign of poor writing.

  1. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Well, this is the trickiest one . And my favorite. As long as it concerns breaking the rules 🙂

Orwell is not a “language tyrant” despite all his “never” and “always”. To write effectively, you shouldn’t be imprisoned by words. Rather, you should often listen to your “language guts” and bend or break the rules.

P.S. A lyrical digression. No writing is flawless. As I was scribbling down the draft for this entry, I was tempted to use a wornout phrase and a couple of passive constructions .  Perhaps, the final version is not perfect, either 🙂 But it’s quite normal. Realizing that perfection is impossible, I choose to surrender to ”wabi-sabi” (a Japanese untranslatable word, see rule #5) -finding beauty in imperfections- in my prose particularly.

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