Sunday, November 22, 2009

Orwell on Writing

Two classics of English literature–George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm–are familiar to most high school students, as well as college literature majors, but few readers seek out the pleasures to be found in the rest of Orwell’s oeuvre, which includes numerous short stories (“Shooting an Elephant” is one of my favorites), novels, and essays offering observations on the social, political, and literary mores of his time.

One of Orwell’s most enduring essays, “Politics and the English Language,” offers a number of important insights on writing and warns against a certain kind of writing:
...modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug. The attraction of this way of writing is that it is easy. It is easier–even quicker, once you have the habit–to say In my opinion it is not an unjustifiable assumption that than to say I think. If you use ready-made phrases, you not only don’t have to hunt about for words; you also don’t have to bother with the rhythms of your sentences, since these phrases are generally so arranged as to be more or less euphonious.
As an antidote to this kind of writing, Orwell suggests a handful of questions that a writer should ask to make sure that his or her prose attains the highest degree of clarity:
A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that 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 en effect? And he will probably ask himself two more: Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?
And at the end of the essay Orwell summarizes a number of rules that will cover most cases:
(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 where 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.
“One could keep all of them [these rules] and still write bad English,” warns Orwell at the end of the essay, “but one could not write the kind of stuff that I quoted ... at the beginning of this article.”

So, if you catch yourself stringing together words simply because it’s easier than finding your own words, or if you recognize any of the writing foibles that Orwell rails against as your own, you might want to take a moment to think about not only what you’re trying to say but how you’re trying to say it. Then begin your search again for an original order and rhythm to give your words the stamp of your own personality.

If you let your individuality shine out through your words rather than try to hide it behind stereotypes and hackneyed phrases, you’ll find your prose stronger, more compelling, and, most importantly, much more memorable in the reader’s mind.

If you’d like to read Orwell’s essay on “Politics and the English Language,” visit:

For more information on Orwell, visit:

For more info on avoiding cliches in writing, take a look at:

PS - Happy Thanksgiving to all of Wordswimmer's readers.


Susan L. Lipson said...

Great blog, Bruce. I will share it with my writing students. Orwell succinctly sums up the rules!

Thanks for sharing his words and your own insightful comments.

Susan L. Lipson said...

In copying the rules section to share with students, I noted a grammar problem.

Orwell wrote: "Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

"Which" should have been "that," to make the clause restrictive; as it stands, he's telling readers not to use metaphors, similes, or other figures of speech. By changing "which" to "that," he would have restricted his admonition to figurative speech that often occurs in print (a.k.a. "trite" expressions).