Orwell on writing

21 January 2013

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It’s 63 years today since the writer George Orwell died, and 110 years since he was born. And to mark the occasion, Penguin Books, the Orwell Estate and the Orwell Prize have joined forces to launch an annual Orwell Day. (I discovered this through reading a short and entertaining column about 1984 and Animal Farm, repurposed by Margaret Atwood in The Guardian.) Penguin have marked the first one by reissuing his books with new covers.

Leaving to one side for the moment the thought that Orwell might have found the idea of such a day a little, well, Orwellian, my modest contribution was to go back to his fine essay “Politics and the English Language” and extract from it his six rules for writing clear English:

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

(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

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

(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

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

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

I think these have held up pretty well since Orwell wrote them in 1946. I do quite a lot of editing, and sometimes have to help colleagues with their writing style. Sometimes, 60 years on, I send them back to read Orwell’s essay. Of course, rule (vi) gives the writer enough rope, if they need it, and not always to hang themselves. While doing the research for this post, I found a couple of others which teased out some subtleties. They are here, and here.

this picture of George Orwell at the top of this post is from the Unleaded blog, and is used with thanks.

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