Sunday, December 16, 2007
Lessons from Orwell: Donít Gum Up the Works When You Write
There are relatively few works of art, and/or genius, which stand the test of time. George Orwell’s 1946 essay, Politics and the English Language, is one such gem. If you haven’t read it, treat yourself; it is a classic example of how a good writer can take any subject and make it interesting. It is also packed with brilliant advice for how to write compellingly.
Orwell wrote the essay because he thought the English language had declined into “slovenliness.” He urged his readers to take corrective action—to fight back against puffy and meaningless phrases and constructions.
For this post, I’ve extracted a few bits from the essay I found the most helpful. At the end of the post, you’ll also find a downloadable PDF containing a list of substitutions for sluggish phrases that’s handy to have kicking around when you edit your writing (or someone else’s).
Identifying the Villains
Orwell was particularly offended by the following enemies of good writing:
- Staleness of imagery and lack of precision: What Orwell called a “mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence.”
- Dying metaphors: Metaphors that have “lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves.”
- Verbs turned into phrases: Such as “render inoperative,” “make contact with,” “give grounds for,” “serve the purpose of.”
- A tendency away from concreteness: Orwell was referring here to a fear of just saying what we mean to say and instead dressing a sentence up in fatuous and pretentious language.
A Summary of the Offenses
In this passage from the essay, Orwell summarizes his objections:
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 ....
[But people who write this way show] that they are not interested in the detail of what they are saying.
How to Escape the Trap
Orwell included a helpful little list of questions for the writer interested in communicating meaningfully to ask himself:
- 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?
- Could I have put it more shortly?
- Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?
Cutting Out the Ugly
To see how Orwell’s list of questions can help make a sentence clearer, consider the following:
Before: “It should be noted that the we are not in a position to take into account the employee’s special circumstances for this application.”
After: “We cannot, in this case, consider the employee’s special circumstances.”
Before: “For the purpose of putting into effect the changes, we will hire a contractor in the very near future.”
After: “To implement the changes, we will soon hire a contractor.”
Practice Makes Perfect
Even Orwell admitted that descending into lazy writing is all too easy to do. Today, as in 1946, we are surrounded by overstuffed, pretentious writing that passes for the norm. Norms tend to seep into everything, despite our best intentions.
So don’t despair if you look at your writing and see a few villains rearing their insidious heads. Go back over your piece if there’s still time, and weed out as many as possible. If it’s too late or otherwise impossible to do this, just try to think “Orwell” the next time you sit down to write.
Here’s that list I mentioned: SimplerWays_TR.pdf