There’s a lot you can learn from Orwell’s writing. His Animal Farm and 1984 are now considered masterpieces – ironic, given the difficulties in getting them published – and are studied in school, I hear. “Intelligence and wit, awareness of social injustice, opposition to totalitarianism, and commitment to democratic socialism” are some of his traits. Some of them are impossible to emulate or even approximate. If you did, your work would be described as Orwellian, which shows how difficult the task would be.
He set the bar high, though he would never have said so as you’ll see in point 3. But we can at least take a few hints from him. I’d counsel you to read his “Politics and the English Language” where you’ll find most of this counsel in better form. Continue at your peril:
1. Learn from the best.
“The writers I care about most and never grow tired of are: Shakespeare, Swift, Fielding, Dickens, Charles Reade, Flaubert and, among modern writers, James Joyce, T. S. Eliot and D. H. Lawrence. But I believe the modern writer who has influenced me most is Somerset Maugham, whom I admire immensely for his power of telling a story straightforwardly and without frills.”
2. Ask yourself:
- What am I trying to say?
- What words will express it?
- What image or idiom will make it clearer?
- Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?
- Could I put it more shortly?
- Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly.
3. Avoid metaphors. Not all, just the dead ones. A metaphor you create evokes a visual image but a metaphor you recycle from current use loses its vividness. Toe the line, stand shoulder to shoulder with, play into the hands of, no axe to grind, fishing in troubled waters, on the order of the day, Achilles’ heel. To use these and others is to be lazy. The result is a euphonious phrase that lulls you to sleep. Make up your own metaphors!
4. Less is more (this is in direct violation of the previous point). Choose the appropriate verb or noun instead of a phrase. Characteristic phrases like render inoperative, militate against, make contact with, be subjected to, give rise to, save you the trouble of finding the appropriate word. Use the active as often as you can. Use simple conjunctions instead of phrases like as with respect to, having regard to, the fact that, by dint of, in view of, in the interests of, on the hypothesis that and don’t end sentences on such commonplace as greatly to be desired, cannot be left out of account, a development to be expected in the near future, deserving of serious consideration, brought to a satisfactory conclusion, and so on and so forth.
5. Don’t be a pretentious arse. Foreign words or expressions are used to give an air of cultural elegance, even though they sometimes have a certain je ne sais quoi. Words like categorical, virtual, primary, promote, constitute, exhibit, exploit, utilize, phenomena, only embellish and give an air of untrue scientific impartiality. Adjectives like epoch-making, epic, historic, triumphant, age-old, inexorable or words like realm, throne, chariot often dignify war and politics. Bad writers will also employ terms with Latin origin instead of Saxon because of their “grandeur”. They end-up with unnecessary words like ameliorate, extraneous, deracinated, clandestine, subaqueous. Also, to words with Latin or Greek roots are added prefixes or suffixes to avoid finding up their English counterparts. Words like deregionalize, impermissible, extramarital. In general, Orwell says this will result in an increase in slovenliness and vagueness.
6. Be meaningful. In certain kinds of writing, as art criticism and literary criticism you can easily find passages lacking in meaning. Using words like romantic, plastic, values, human, dead, sentimental, will add in nothing to the readers’ understanding. You end-up with phrases like “The outstanding feature of Mr. X’s work is its living quality” or “The immediately striking thing about Mr. X’s work is its peculiar deadness”. Notice that if you replace jargon words like living and dead, by black or white you’ll see that they were used in an improper way. And use words for their actual meaning. Words like democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice are often used for meanings they do not have. Democracy is often used as praise, and calling a country anything other thing other than democratic is an insult. It is a misappropriation of the word. One can easily make a harsh truth sound like a beautiful lie. You can’t say outright “I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so” but you can say “While freely conceding that the Soviet regime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods, and that the rigors which the Russian people have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement.”
Orwell offers a possible translation of what he considers to be good English to a version that fails to obey these guidelines. The original is from Ecclesiastes:
“I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.”
This is the translation:
“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.”
Let us recapitulate:
1. Learn to write from reading the best.
2. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
3. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
4. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
5. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
6. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
7. (This one is bonus) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
I’m not the messiah, but you can follow me: