Orwell: Timeless Guidelines for Writers

By Maeve Maddox

If you’ve never read George Orwell’s 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language,” treat yourself.

Written more than half a century ago, it remains as timely in 2007 as it was when he wrote it.

Unfortunately.

In this essay Orwell discusses the political use of language to manipulate and obscure:

Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements.

Orwell drew on Communist rhetoric for many of his illustrations, but our own times have generated the political euphemism ethnic cleansing to cloak the heinous reality of dislocation, rape, and murder.

Every word of the essay will reward your reading, but the section that I keep going back to is the one in which Orwell formulates six rules for clean, honest writing:

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

Observing this rule will not only eliminate cliché in your writing, it will preserve you from disseminating the pre-digested thoughts of others.

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

Many Latinate words in a row have the effect of softening and obscuring meaning. Be especially careful with strings of nouns ending in -tion.

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

We can all benefit by going back over our work looking for such unnecessary words as just, almost, apparently, and a great many other superfluous adverbs.

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

Not only does the passive voice have the effect of slowing down writing, it enables the political writer to avoid placing responsibility. Compare:
The Indians were forced from their homes.
The government of Georgia forced the Indians from their homes.

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

For all that we should be free to use the word “niggardly” if we wish, we can usually get our point across with the more familiar and less controversial stingy.

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

While we needn’t write billets doux for love letters, we’d be up a creek if we had to come up with “an everyday English equivalent” for such assimilated foreign expressions as laissez-faire, détente, and cliché.

TIP: Good writing is honest writing. Begin with a clear idea of what it is you want to say. Be prepared to write and rewrite until the words you’ve poured out on paper come as close as possible to the idea you wish to convey. Don’t use big words to impress, but don’t underestimate the intelligence of your reader.

And go back to Orwell from time to time.

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13 Responses to “Orwell: Timeless Guidelines for Writers”

  • Jay Wagers

    My favorites have always been numbers 2 and 3. Not only Orwell, but also Hemingway “owned” these rules.

  • J.

    “2) Never us a long word where a short one will do.”

    us=use

  • Maeve

    J –
    noted and corrected. Thanks.

  • Alice

    I really appreciate the advice–the above is a great essay I read with my students. In fact, I plan to use many of these ideas with my lower level students this up coming year. However, I have to point out that much of these posts need a bit more scrutiny prior to posting. A little more editing will prove the point of Daily Writing Tips more effectively.

  • Maeve

    Alice,
    You’re right of course. There is absolutely no excuse to publish a post that contains errors. On a site like this one, it’s especially unforgivable.

    Physician, heal thyself!

    (By the way, I can’t get rid of the errors in the Orwell essay on the Mount Holyoke College site. If I can find the time, I’ll copy it, with corrections, to my own site.)

  • Roshawn

    These are some of the best writing tips ever. Using them would make me a better writer and not just a good one. 😉

  • Ricardo

    Very interesting comments. English is not my first language, and since I first learned that there was a single form of “you” for both singular and plural, I have always wondered why and how this happened. “You all” and “yous” seem to be a reaction to this lack of distinction, but there has to be a reason why two distinct forms were abandoned at some point. Just wondering if anybody knew why

  • Kristina

    In response to Ricardo’s query, here’s what Wikipedia had to say on this point.

    “Early Modern English distinguished between the plural you and the singular thou. This distinction was lost in modern English due to the importation from France of a Romance linguistic feature which is commonly called the T-V distinction. This distinction made the plural forms more respectful and deferential; they were used to address strangers and social superiors. This distinction ultimately led to familiar thou becoming obsolete in standard English (and Dutch), although this did not happen in other languages such as French.”

    Interesting!

    Cheers,
    Kristina

  • Cecily

    I think the crucial thing that people often overlook is the first word of the essay’s title: “Politics”.

    If people remember that, and actually read the whole essay, they will see that Orwell makes valid points how language is manipulated to deceive and mislead. His six suggestions are to help people write plainly to avoid being misunderstood.

    The problem comes when people think these suggestions apply to ALL forms of writing, even fiction. You only have to skim Orwell’s own works to see that was not his intention.

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