Three for writers: Orwell’s rules

I came across this essay of George Orwell’s the other day: ‘Politics and the English Language’. Despite being published in 1946 much of what it says about writing with clarity is as pertinent today as it was then (possibly even more so with the proliferation of jargon, typified by the PR guru in the fantastic satire, ‘In the thick it’). Although the advice is general and aimed at professional writers rather than writers of fiction, I do think ‘us’ fiction writers – particularly those who write commercial fiction – can learn something useful from Orwell.

In contemporary commercial fiction, the writing should be invisible, but not ordinary. It should, as Orwell states: ‘express and not conceal or prevent thought’.

He provides a list (who doesn’t like a list) of writing rules, which he believes, if followed, will halt, not only the decay of the written word, but of thought, and with it an end to political chaos. A grand idea, but one that makes a lot of sense. We are defined by our actions, but those actions come from thoughts, articulated by language. If the language is vague, then thought is undeveloped, or muddled, and action lacks purpose and conviction.

Orwell’s writing rules

i)                   Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

If it comes easy it is probably a cliché. The other day I wrote; ‘the college was like a ghost town in August’ – it tells the reader nothing about the person who is thinking it.

I changed it to; ‘The College in August was like a nightclub in the daytime, pointless and stale.’ This expresses so much more about the character’s cultural references and state of mind.

(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

Even more important if you are writing in first person, never use a word the character wouldn’t use.  My character ‘expresses her condolences’ – no she doesn’t! She sends a text saying she has a spare shoulder to cry on.

(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

This is so important in commercial fiction, where pace is very important.

At first glance, the elegant décor suggested opulence and wealth, but as I scanned the walls and ceiling, I saw the blown plaster behind the large vase of lilies and the chunks of missing cornice and creeping mould. 38 words.

The décor suggested opulence, but a closer inspection revealed blown plaster, hidden by a vase of lilies, and creeping mould. A chunk of cornice was missing in the corner. 29 words.

(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

Do you know your passive from your active? In fiction it is rare you will need to use a passive voice.

In the active voice, the subject and verb relationship is straightforward: the subject is a be-er or a do-er and the verb moves the sentence along. In the passive voice, the subject of the sentence is neither a do-er or a be-er, but is acted upon by some other agent or by something unnamed.

For example:

(passive) From out of my bag, the kindle, along with notepad and pen were extracted.  

(active) I pulled my kindle, notepad and pen out of my bag.

Test yourself. Can you turn these passive sentences into active?

(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

Unless, if by doing so, you express something about the character, such as, ethnicity, intelligence or job status, but definitely don’t use big words just to be clever or elitist.

(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

I love this one. Sometimes a cliché, used by a character, is illuminating. Sometimes the passive voice is used to create a particular effect, for example a character intentionally distancing themselves from their own actions. Sometimes you need a long sentences chocked full of adverbs; I love you, truly, madly, deeply and completely – because of the sound and rhythm they make.  Sometimes the rules turn something beautiful into something ugly.

To boldly go (split infinitive) is so much more enduring than; To go boldly.

Orwell’s original essay was a rant at lazy, imprecise language, leading to lazy and imprecise thinking, which in turn leads to lazy and imprecise language.

“It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”

He directs his attention on political language, after pointing out that if you speak plainly and simply, when you say something stupid, its stupidity will be obvious, whereas if you use lazy clichés or abstract terms, then you can ‘make lies sound truthful and murder respectable … and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.’

So though Orwell’s advice is not directed at commercial fiction writers, it is useful for commercial fiction writers to ask themselves:

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?

Orwell ends his essay with a word of caution, possibly even a premonition, depending on your perspective of the merit (literary or otherwise) of recent best sellers.

“But you are not obliged to go to all this trouble. You can shirk it by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in.

Share your writing gems. What has helped you to develop as a writer?

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