Last week, I posted six rules for writing from George Orwell, but that post was swallowed up by the internet. I was quite pleased by the number of people who wrote to ask where the list had gone, so I’ve decided to re-post it.
In one of his most famous essays, “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell writes that “the following rules will cover most cases”:
1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which are used to seeing in print.
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent. (I’m charmed by his example: use “snapdragon,” not “antirrhinum.” Snapdragon is so much nicer.)
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
I find these rules to be enormously helpful. It’s so easy to use tired, shopworn figures of speech. I love using long, fancy words but have learned–mostly from writing my biography of Winston Churchill–that short, strong words work better. I am ever-vigilant against the passive and against jargon, both of which are so insidious.
However, I have to be cautious with #3. I love to cut so much that I have to be careful not to cut too much. My writing tends to become very dense, so I have to keep some cushion. Sometimes, words that seem superfluous are actually essential, for the overall effect.
One thing that makes me very happy is to have a complicated idea and to feel that I’ve expressed myself clearly. I remember writing the ending to Happier at Home. I wrote the entire book to build to that ending–”now is now”–and what I had to say was very abstract, and yet, I felt satisfied that I managed to say what I wanted to say. One of the happiest experiences I’ve had as a writer was when I typed the final lines, “Now is now. Here is my treasure.”
How about you? Do you use these rules–or any others?