Writers, especially new writers, tend to get hung up on the mechanics of writing. How do I know what to do? What’s the proper way of writing this sentence or that word or that past participle (and what the hell is that, anyway?)? Below, I’ll share some brief advice about what you need to know about the writing rules, and when to throw them out.
George Orwell is one of the seminal writers of the 20th century. You probably remember him as the author of Animal Farm and 1984. In his set of essays, Politics and the English Language, he lays out some of the more annoying and frustrating phrases, metaphors, and stylistic choices writers make and then tells us how to simplify our language. Orwell’s writing advice is some of the best out there when it comes to writing – and editing, for that matter.
Below, I’ve laid out Orwell’s five rules along with some examples to look for in your own writing.
(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
You may have heard the word “cliche.” When it comes to writing, a cliche is a term that is so commonly used that it has no meaning anymore. It’s so overused that the language has lost vitality. Avoid using cliches. Even if it’s a popular term right now, take it out. You’re writing a book with lasting effect. Excluding cliches strengthens your writing and avoids premature aging of your work.
(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.
We tend to write long words when we need to fill space or feel the need to sound important. Think about the words you choose. Don’t say “individual” as a noun if you can say person. Don’t say “perspicacious” when clever will do.
(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
When we talk and when we write, we use a lot of filler words. This is fine for stream of consciousness writing. However, when it’s time to edit, these filler words should be the first to go. Look for too much use of “that,” “just,” “really,” “very,” “so,” and “to.”
(iv) Never use the passive [voice] where you can use the active.
A lively speech was being given.
He gave a lively speech.
Which phrase is more specific and compelling? Which phrase conjures an immediate picture, a vision of you at the edge of your seat watching the speaker? And which one conjures an image of you somewhere outside the venue hearing about some speech “being given”? When you read, imagine the scene you’re painting with your words, and go with the active picture.
(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
This one is similar to rule number (ii). In this case, it’s often the writer’s training that gets in the way. For example, someone who trained as an attorney will feel the need to write in a certain way after having this method drummed into them for three years. Where possible, catch yourself using words a layperson wouldn’t understand and use the best and simplest equivalents.
(vi) Break any rules sooner than say anything barbarous (read: barbaric).
Rules are made to be broken. Yes, you should follow the rules most of the time; make the reading easy on your reader. But once you know and understand the rules, then you can experiment with breaking them.
Orwell’s main point is this: clean up your language. Don’t slow your reader down with a speed bump created out of thick, hard-to-understand words. Allow your message to flow as smoothly as possible. And finally, don’t sacrifice clean writing in the name of upholding a rule. If the rule creates an impediment to understanding, then it isn’t a useful rule.