George Orwell’s other rules of writing

In Politics and the English Language (1945), George Orwell suggests six rules of writing. If you’re in the habit of reading blogs written by language consultancies, you’ve almost certainly seen them: ‘(i) Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print; (ii) Never use a long word when a short one will do; (iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out; (iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active; (v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent; (vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.’

Much less frequently quoted is the advice that Orwell gives just a few pages earlier, while discussing what goes wrong when writers aren’t interested in the detail of what they’re saying, only in a vague ‘emotional meaning’. He says:

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

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?

And he will probably ask himself two more:

Could I put it more shortly?
Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?’

I’ve always preferred the list of six questions to the more finger-wagging six rules. They’re quieter but somehow more challenging, I think.

If you’ve never read Politics and the English Language in full, then a) shame on you; and b) now’s the time. Penguin have just published it in a 99p version. Buy several. Give them to friends, relatives, clients. Leave them in public places.


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on Feb 06, 2013

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