Orwell’s rules for writing

I think George Orwell (Eric Arthur Blair, if you insist) is unsurpassed in English literature. Joseph Conrad (a Pole writing in his second language) ran him close in terms of precision and cumulative effect. Edgar Allen Poe has the edge in terms of sheer vocabulary. But Orwell wrote about the modern world’s coming of age before the modern world even knew what was happening to it. Words and politics: an unbeatable combination for me.

In his essay “Politics and the English Language” (May 1945) he wrote

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 an effect?

And he will probably ask himself two more:

   Could I put it more shortly?

   Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?

He has quite a long and involved technical discussion about language and meaning, but he summed himself up in these words:

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

   Never us a long word where a short one will do.

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

   Never use the passive where you can use the active.

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

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

I used to test Orwell against his own rules by asking classes to summarise a page from Animal Farm by omitting everything that didn’t need to be on the page. The best student I remember looked at me (he had a better than average understanding of human psychology, let me say), bent his head and read the page, then sat and folded his arms and looked in some amusement at the frustrated activity surrounding him. Bright boy. We could all learn from him.

Oh, and from Orwell, of course.

Editing, language and writing