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January 29, 2018 Comments (19) The Business Writing Blog

Do George Orwell’s Rules on Writing Still Hold True?

When it comes to teaching and encouraging clear writing, George Orwell’s famous six rules are often cited. With the vast amounts of content being churned out on the internet and in the media, the need for clarity and economy of words is greater than ever – but how well do Orwell’s points stand up to modern needs?

The six points originally appeared in the 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language” in which the author railed against the deliberate twisting of words which he said were corrupting political thought. It is remarkably prescient stuff, the crude ’doublespeak’ tactics of the Nazis and Bolsheviks having been perfected over the decades by marketeers, spin doctors and government spokespeople.

Orwell’s brilliant and alarming take on the relationship between language and politics is beyond the scope of this blog, however: Such matters are better discussed on a cultural forum.

Rightly or wrongly, Orwell’s essay is largely remembered for his writing rules which are still taught on journalism courses today:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you 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.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Let’s look at each from the perspective of modern writing:

1 – Cliches have no place. It doesn’t mean you can’t use turns of phrase or expressions, but Orwell was not referring to that. The problem in the modern media is when a phrase becomes a go-to, trendy, lazy way of scoring points. How many times has something been described as “not fit for purpose” as a catch-all way of attacking and institution? There are surely better, more precise ways of describing issues with NHS funding or school buildings, and yet when this phrase is trotted out, journalists and commentators seem to delight in repeating it ad nauseum as if its very utterance were a cast iron argument condemning management incompetence.

2 – This is a good rule of thumb, but there are reasons to break it at times. Yes, short words are good. They are often more direct in meaning. And certainly, one should never use a long word when trying to be clever. This is balanced against the need to vary the words used in an article, and the fact that sometimes a long word conveys more precisely what you are trying to say.

3. – Almost always true. Occasionally, the cadence of a sentence requires an extra, technically superfluous word to be judiciously left in or even added. But then, many a council press release would require two thirds of the drivel to be cut out. Though this rule seems to have been included on a mainly aesthetic principle, it has grown in relevance now that waffle is used as an obfuscation tactic and marketing device.

4 – The theory holds that the more common, active voice is more immediate and exciting. That is true, but there are good reasons why the passive is sometimes preferred, both in speech and writing: usually, to emphasise the ’doer’. For example, ‘that such arguments should be made by a British Member of Parliament’ – ie, we expect to hear them in a council estate pub but it’s a bit of a shocker from the Honourable Member for Newton Abbott, or some such. Indeed.

On the other hand, where the passive voice is used to disguise the subject of the sentence, or obfuscate responsibility, then Orwell’s dictum could hardly be more relevant.

5 – Why would you use a word that can’t easily be understood when you are trying to communicate? Some will argue that they are ’writing for a specialist audience’, but this is rarely as true as they believe and anyway, specialists appreciate clear language too. More likely, jargon is being used to exclude the public from the conversation, keep access exclusive, or hide something that will appear abhorrent once expressed in plain English.

6 – Obviously. We’ve just seen that all Orwell’s rules carry caveats. And rule vi shows that these were intended.

It’s easy to see why these rules are still cited by teachers today – although perhaps not by enough of them! Not only does Orwell score a solid six out of six, it is clear that his rules regarding cliches, jargon and waffle have become more relevant over time. All three are widely employed in the public and corporate sectors for the purposes of obfuscation. Journalists need to spot this and call it out, while good PR and marketing writers should avoid them in favour of clearly laying out a message they genuinely believe in.

The rules also remain an excellent guide to good writing and are a good crib sheet for those new to editing copy.

It’s tempting to think that Orwell, who at times comes across as a bit of a curmudgeon, would have hated the internet age. Probably he would. But this line from Politics and the English Language suggests there are aspects he’s have appreciated: “Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one’s meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations.”

Yes, Orwell would enjoyed a (non-cliched) meme, and he’d love a gif!

 

19 Responses to Do George Orwell’s Rules on Writing Still Hold True?

  1. White Boots says:

    Dom,

    Being familiar w/ Orwell’s honky-jive for some years I would suggest you are correct to hold them in the regard you so clearly do. No doubt H. L. Mencken would say the same.

    Personally, I could never bring myself to agree w/ Rule 6. We live in increasingly barbarous times (and it’s been hideous for decades); sometimes all one can use to fight fire is fire itself. Consider my favourite Journalist, Hunter Thompson: the fat potato had no compulsions in calling a sadist pigfucker a sadist pigfucker. Eggs is eggs, and a spade remains a spade, I can only respect him for that.

    Obviously, within the realm of creative writing every one of these rules could and perhaps should be broken. Where would Will Self be now if he shackled himself as strongly as Orwell did to these rules of engagement?

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