The English novelist George Orwell is probably best known for his works Animal Farm and Ninety Eighty-Four – these two books together have sold more copies than any two books by any other 20th-century author! He was known for his clear, direct – and entertaining – writing style. So, what can this mid-century writer teach us today? Turns out, he would’ve been a great writer for today’s blog-style of writing.
In 1946, Orwell wrote an essay titled “Politics and the English Language”. In this essay, Orwell summarized the most common flaws in writing:
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 we use these phrases all the time. Phrases such as toe the line, hit a home run, fly in the ointment, axe to grind, stand shoulder to shoulder with, two peas in a pod, blind as a bat, tough as nails come quickly to mind.
Common phrases like these are so overused that they no longer elicit any kind of emotional response. Avoid them and try to produce new ways to describe emotions and images.
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
Are you a purveyor of what Orwell coined “pretentious diction?” Have I just broken this rule by using the word purveyor? Long words don’t make you sound intelligent – unless you are able to use them correctly. More likely, they will make you sound arrogant and condescending. And, more importantly, they are less likely to be understood by the reader.
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
Flowery, overly-descriptive language rarely contributes to better understanding. It has no place on the internet when immediate communication is your goal. Words that don’t contribute meaning to a passage dilute its power.
Read your copy and read it again. Edit. Less is always better.
4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
This one is often broken because many people don’t know the difference between active and passive verbs. 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 second option is better because it’s shorter and more impactful.
Think of it as writing in the present tense. Don’t write in past tense, unless you are reporting on something that actually happened in the past!
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
This one can be tough to apply because much of the writing published on the internet is technical. Simply keep your audience in mind. If you are writing to a highly technical group, you may be justified in using technical jargon. The point is, try to write as simply as you can. Keep clear communication your goal. Try to help people understand what you are writing and make it easy for them to share it with their non-technical friends.
6. Break any of these rules sooner than saying anything outright barbarous.
This last rule is a kind of catch-all to the others. Every rule was made to be broken, so go ahead and break them – IF it helps communicate your message.
Our goal is to write like Hemingway. Because he started as a writer of short stories, he learned to get the best from the least. Most of his writing contained simple sentences. Easy to read. Moves the narrative quickly. Just what the internet reader wants.
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