George Orwell’s 5 Rules for Effective Writing

This is hardly a recent problem, and as George Orwell wrote in his 1946 essay, Politics and the English Language, the condition is curable. By following Orwell’s 5 rules for effective writing, you’ll distinguish yourself from competitors and clearly communicate your ideas.

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

This sounds easy, but in practice is incredibly difficult. Phrases such astoe the lineride roughshod overstand shoulder to shoulder withplay into the hands of, an axe to grind, Achilles’ heel, swan song, and hotbedcome to mind quickly and feel comforting and melodic.

For this exact reason they must be avoided. Common phrases have become so comfortable that they create no emotional response. Take the time to invent fresh, powerful images.

2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.

Long words don’t make you sound intelligent unless used skillfully. In the wrong situation they’ll have the opposite effect, making you sound pretentious and arrogant. They’re also less likely to be understood and more awkward to read.

When Hemingway was criticized by Faulkner for his limited word choice he replied:

Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.

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

Great literature is simply language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree (Ezra Pound). Accordingly, any words that don’t contribute meaning to a passage dilute its power. Less is always better. Always.

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

This one is frequently broken, probably because many people don’t know the difference between active and passive verbs. I didn’t myself until a few months ago. Here is an example that makes it easy to understand:

The man was bitten by the dog. (passive)The dog bit the man. (active).The active is better because it’s shorter and more forceful.

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

This is tricky because much of the writing published on the internet is highly technical. If possible, remain accessible to the average reader. If your audience is highly specialized this is a judgment call. You don’t want to drag on with unnecessary explanation, but try to help people understand what you’re writing about. You want your ideas to spread right?

6. Break any of these rules sooner than saying anything outright barbarous.

This bonus rule is a catch all. Above all, be sure to use common sense.These rules are easy to memorize but difficult to apply. Although I’ve edited this piece a dozen times I’m sure it contains imperfections. But trust me, it’s much better now than it was initially. The key is effort. Good writing matters, probably more than you think.

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Posted via email from Delusions of Grandeur

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One Response to “George Orwell’s 5 Rules for Effective Writing”

  1. JD Says:

    I’d take out the “trust me” in the last paragraph, for example. That’s such a cliche that it now is almost synonymous with “I’m lying but I’d like you to pretend not to notice. I think we could lose the “exact” under Rule 1 and the “simply” under Rule 3. Also, “The key is effort” under Rule 6 is not only a cliche (everything is now “key” to something) but it’s also not true. The reader is not so interested in the fact that you tried to create good writing as in whether you succeeded.


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