In 1943, George Orwell (of 1984 and Animal Farm fame) gave us a gift that I bet most of you don’t know about. It’s an essay called “Politics and the English Language” and it contains his rules for good writing. A few days ago, I stumbled upon this incredibly thought-provoking piece thanks to a young client who needed help with an English essay. Lucky for us, the entire thing is available online here.
But because I know time is eternally of the essence, here are his key points:
The English language is struggling. “A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.“ (remember, he wrote this in 1943. Imagine what he would think if he saw it now.)
We can fix it. And if we do, the world will improve with it. “Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.“
Two primary problems our language suffers? Staleness of imagery and lack of precision. “The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not. This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose.”
The solution isn’t saving obsolete words, or obsessing over grammar and syntax. “To begin with it has nothing to do with archaism, with the salvaging of obsolete words and turns of speech, or with the setting up of a ‘standard English’ which must never be departed from. On the contrary, it is especially concerned with the scrapping of every word or idiom which has outworn its usefulness. It has nothing to do with correct grammar and syntax, which are of no importance so long as one makes one’s meaning clear.. On the other hand, it is not concerned with fake simplicity and the attempt to make written English colloquial…. What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around.”
GEORGE ORWELL’S RULES FOR WRITING (I’m 100% quoting here):
(1) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
(2) Never us a long word where a short one will do.
(3) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
(4) Never use the passive where you can use the active.
(5) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
(6) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
Thoughts? I think these are the best rules I’ve put up yet. Check out the Rules For Writing Category on Write In Color to read rules from other writers.