George Orwell’s 5 Rules for Effective Writing Style

George OrwellGeorge Orwell (left) wrote that when he was about sixteen, he “suddenly discovered the joy of mere words, i.e. the sounds and associations of words. The lines from PARADISE LOST,

So hee with difficulty and labour hard
Moved on: with difficulty and labour hee.

which do not now seem to me so very wonderful, sent shivers down my backbone; and the spelling ‘hee’ for ‘he’ was an added pleasure”.

(See his essay Why I Write, in which he concluded that writers typically write out of sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, or political impulse – if you’re a blogger, which one explains you? Do you recognise yourself in his conclusion that “[a]ll writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery”?).

Anyway, I was reminded of this when I recently came across John Wesley’s wonderful post on PickTheBrain about George Orwell’s 5 Rules for Effective Writing Style. Here are edited highlights:

… Language is the primary conductor between your brain and the minds of your audience. Ineffective language weakens and distorts ideas. If you want to be understood, if you want your ideas to spread, using effective language must be your top priority. … This is hardly a recent problem, and as George Orwell wrote in his 1946 essay, Politics and the English Language, the condition is curable. By following Orwell’s 5 rules for effective writing, you’ll distinguish yourself from competitors and clearly communicate your ideas.

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

This sounds easy, but in practice is incredibly difficult. … Common phrases have become so comfortable that they create no emotional response. Take the time to invent fresh, powerful images.

2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.

… When Hemingway was criticized by Faulkner for his limited word choice he replied:

Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.

3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

… Less is always better. Always.

4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.

… Here is an example that makes it easy to understand:

The man was bitten by the dog. (passive)
The dog bit the man. (active).

The active is better because it’s shorter and more forceful.

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

6. Break any of these rules sooner than saying anything outright barbarous.

This bonus rule is a catch all. Above all, be sure to use common sense.

If you enjoyed this post, be sure to read Orwell’s original essay [also here]. It contains many helpful examples and is, of course, a pleasure to read.

If any of my students with essays due are reading this blog, you could do worse than take this advice. I promise to try to do so too in future on this blog.