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Orwell on writing


Vardibidian's comments on The Elements of Style indirectly brought to mind George Orwell's 1946 essay "Politics and the English Language." Which in turn led me to notice that I had never posted the bits of that piece that I particularly like, though I did once post a link to the essay.

I tend to roll my eyes at Orwell's comments about the "slovenliness" and "decline" of English, but I think the specific guidelines he suggests are good ones, especially for writing nonfiction. Especially if you consider them to be guidelines rather than rules. I have the following, excerpted from the essay, pinned to the wall above my desk at work:

A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus:

  1. What am I trying to say?
  2. What words will express it?
  3. What image or idiom will make it clearer?
  4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?

And he will probably ask himself two more:

  1. Could I put it more shortly?
  2. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?


I think the following rules will cover most cases:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out. [Or: "Omit needless words." --Jed]
  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.


I think "needless" in your version of (3) might conflict with (2). :)

More seriously, "cut" is not only shorter than "omit", but has a different and (I think, in this case) better take on the problem.

Even supposing one is writing non-fiction essays, I think omitting needless words is either a bad idea or so vague an idea as to be unhelpful. After all, one needn't write at all, so all the words are needless. One needn't include all sorts of details, many of which are entertaining but scarcely needful, if one always keeps in mind the goal and the most economical way to get there, which is likely to be the dullest. Also, this whole business about the passive and the active is nonsense; a good writer will use whichever is best suited to the job at hand. Now, one probably oughtn't use the passive in order to distract from an active actor, as it were, to (famously) claim that mistakes were made without admitting that anybody made mistakes. Unless, of course, that is one's aim, or that such a goal is useful in whatever one's ultimate aim actually is. In other words, don't use the passive voice unless you want to for some reason. The same could be said for the active voice. Furthermore, the hunt for common metaphors (Omilord, he said hunt for) is also a fool's game, as rooting out such will either make your language boring (boring—you know, like when you grind on and on and on with some sort of boring tool—it's a metaphor, and older than Hector, so out it goes) or opaque (although one could probably see through it). And certainly one should eschew jargon if one can easily use an English synonym, but one can't, because that's what jargon is, the invention of words (or more often the invention of a new definition of an extant word) for something that, because it applies only to a dedicated group, doesn't have a simple word for it in common parlance. Let's see ... is clear the opposite of evocative? Does disambiguation as a goal necessarily take precedence over emotional involvement, or amusement, or whatnot? Sometimes, yes, of course it does, particularly when writing non-fiction. On the other hand, when something is clear enough, making it more clear is a mistake, as it will likely make it more dull. You (I surmise) use your judgment on such matters, rather than Mr. Orwell's guidelines.

Not that it's all bad advice, nor is it, taken as a guideline, a bad idea to keep in the back of your head (or on your wall) whilst writing a certain kind of thing. On the other hand, taking it as a guideline requires breaking it sufficiently often to know when breaking it is effective. In other words, it would be bad advice to follow this good advice (to the extent that the advice is good advice), until you are a good writer, at which point you may well have decided to write in a style that Mr. Orwell would loathe, and more power to you.

I do think that, if a person is thinking about taking up writing as a profession, vocation or hobby, they (O Lord, forgive the fellow) should spend a while attempting to write to Mr. Orwell's guidelines (and also Mr. Strunk's), and see what happens. Of course, I think it would probably be a good idea to attempt to write to Mr. Mencken's guidelines as well, and perhaps to articulate them as clearly as Mr. Orwell does his. And do the same for Mr. Beckett. And perhaps Mr. James. Any Mr. James. Or even Mr. Orwell; he certainly doesn't follow his advice himself, at least not in the essays I have read.

Thanks (and apologies for the pugnacious tone, but I come over all disputatious when one particular style of writing is defined as good writing),

I think this essay may be my favorite essay of all time. It really may be. No wonder you're such a damn good editor.

I haven't re-read it in a while; thanks for the link!

Also I disagree with pretty much every word Vardibidian wrote. So there.

Damn. Well, and perhaps people, like writing styles, are different one to another, and that's what makes the world interesting and fun.


What I like about this essay is that Orwell really walks the walk. He says to be direct and use clear, evocative images; and he does. He says to avoid vague language, and he does. He says to avoid terms that allow or encourage intellectual or moral dishonesty, and he does. I gave it to my freshman comp class this semester, and I only wish we could have spent twice as much time on it, because he prescribes and demonstrates good writing and also links it to integrity in a way that I think is often and easily lost.

I also disagree with Vardibidian's comment, but mostly because I think it mischaracterizes Orwell's points. (Oh--looking back, V., have you read the essay? Maybe I'm being unfair, because the whole essay is much more sophisticated than the section Jed excerpted. That serves as a kind of quick reference guide. By itself I agree it's open to disagreement.)

Here's what he says about metaphors, for instance:

Dying metaphors. A newly invented metaphor assists thought by evoking a visual image, while on the other hand a metaphor which is technically "dead" (e.g. iron resolution ) has in effect reverted to being an ordinary word and can generally be used without loss of vividness. But in between these two classes there is a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves. Examples are: Ring the changes on, take up the cudgel for, toe the line, ride roughshod over, stand shoulder to shoulder with, play into the hands of, no axe to grind, grist to the mill, fishing in troubled waters, on the order of the day, Achilles' heel, swan song, hotbed . Many of these are used without knowledge of their meaning (what is a "rift," for instance?), and incompatible metaphors are frequently mixed, a sure sign that the writer is not interested in what he is saying.

Look at his language. A lot of action verbs, a lot of direct and specific language, but when appropriate there's an evocative metaphor right in there: "a huge dump of worn-out metaphors". That metaphor is newly invented and adds meaning elegantly and unintrusively. The whole essay, to my mind, is really beautiful.

This happens to be one of my all time favorite essays as well, and I regularly teach it in college composition classes. We haven't touched on the political elements of it which I find just as powerful. His point that politicians (of both the left and the right) ofen use language to obscure atrocities and deflect responsibility strikes me as just as relevant as when he wrote it in 1946. This article gives my students some tools to dissect political speech--tools most of them don't have. One of my favorite quotes is:

"When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases -- bestial, atrocities, iron heel, bloodstained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder -- one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker's spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them. And this is not altogether fanciful. A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself. If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church. And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favorable to political conformity."

While we are on the topic of "no extra words," I particularly like Richard Lanham's Revising Prose. His five step process:

1. Circle the prepositions [and cut as many as possible]
2. Circle the "is" forms [and cut as many as possible]
3. Ask "Who is kicking who?" [and put the kicker at the beginning of the sentence]
4. Put this "kicking" action in a simple (not compound) active verb.
5. Start fast--no mindless introductions.

And my favorite book on style is Williams, Writing with Style.