If people couldn’t write well, George Orwell famously said, they couldn’t think well. And if they couldn’t think well, others would do the thinking for them. It’s fitting that Nineteen Eighty-Four, the dystopian novel about the consequences of totalitarianism, is Orwell’s most notable work. But he was also a prolific writer of non-fiction books, poetry and essays about politics and culture. Orwell’s writing rules emerged from one of those essays. Here is their origin story and how Orwell’s guidelines can help us to think for ourselves and write with clarity.
What Are George Orwell’s Rules for Writing?
George Orwell’s rules for writing are a set of six guidelines the author offered in his essay Politics and the English Language. In this piece, Orwell discusses the decline of the English language and the ways in which it’s used to manipulate and obfuscate meaning. The author takes issue with lazy writing in politics and the habit of using sloppy thinking and empty phrases that lead to bad policies. His six rules for better writing are as follows:
- Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- Never use 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.
Taking into consideration the contemporary writing style, notwithstanding the imminent consequences of preferring protracted sentences and refraining from eschewing egregious obfuscations, the littérateur takes the bull by the horns in advocating for a, by all means, more forthright view of the craftwork of penmanship. Put less obnoxiously, Orwell’s writing rules are about simplicity and clear thinking.
Breaking Down Orwell’s Writing Rules
Let’s break them down one by one. Here are the six rules everyone can follow to avoid producing meaningless drivel.
Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
With the first rule, Orwell cautions writers not to rely on overused phrases and clichés. Idioms and metaphors that regularly appear in print are easily recognisable. The problem is that such tropes can also come across as generic and unoriginal. In other words, time-worn phrases weaken your writing. By avoiding them, you have more room for your own expressions, which makes your writing authentic.
So instead of sending scientists “back to the drawing board”, open with a more specific phrase to make your point. Such as: “New data on the Dunning-Kruger Effect suggests it may not be real.” It has the same meaning without sounding overused. So practice playing with linguistic conventions to achieve originality. As the late contrarian Christopher Hitchens put it:
Avoid stock expressions (like the plague, as William Safire used to say) and repetitions. Don’t say that as a boy your grandmother used to read to you, unless at that stage of her life she really was a boy, in which case you have probably thrown away a better intro. If something is worth hearing or listening to, it’s very probably worth reading. So, this above all: Find your own voice.
Never use a long word where a short one will do.
Simplicity is a core principle of Orwell’s rules for writing. According to the novelist, you should always ask yourself if you can say something with fewer syllables or letters. Because some words are more equal than others. For example, choose words over the term vocabulary. Instead of utilise or effectuate, say use. Any letter you can shave off that doesn’t change the meaning will make your message more concise and easier to understand.
This extends to phrases with more than a word. Until such time as may sound smart. So does due to the fact. On the downside they clutter up your sentences, distracting the reader from the parts that matter. If you can, use until and because instead. Speaking of cluttering up your sentences. Simplicity is closely related to Orwell’s third writing rule about brevity.
If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
The average English sentence has 17 words. Give or take. Short sentences are easy to understand. Long sentences, on the other hand, require more use of our brain power and therefore run the quite real risk of being confusing. One way to keep
the above-mentioned sentences short, concise and to the point is by eliminating unnecessary or superfluous words. The changes I made to this last sentence cut the word count almost in half. The meaning is the same.
Remember, George Orwell’s writing rules emphasise the importance of clear and precise language. Long sentences can dilute the impact of your message. So when editing, consider replacing phrases such as at this moment in time with now. Think about the value each word you wrote adds. She was happy. is a perfectly fine sentence. Chances are, adding a very makes no difference. Take it from Robert Greene who knows the irresistible power of saying less than necessary:
When you are trying to impress people with words, the more you say, the more common you appear, and the less in control. Even if you are saying something banal, it will seem original if you make it vague, open-ended, and sphinxlike. Powerful people impress and intimidate by saying less. The more you say, the more likely you are to say something foolish.Robert Greene, The 48 Laws of Power
4. Active Voice
Never use the passive where you can use the active.
Another battleground of clear and simple writing is grammar. And the passive in particular. Using the passive is not a bad choice per se. But it should be a deliberate one. You can either write that mistakes were made, which makes the sentence sound more distant and less direct. Or you choose the active form: We made mistakes. Now, the sentence becomes more concise and assertive.
In Orwell’s context of political writing, the active option provides more clarity. The passive voice tends to create ambiguity and evasiveness. It’s the language of an impersonal bureaucracy that avoids taking responsibility for its actions. As such the passive has the reputation as a tool for obfuscation and manipulation. So writers should be aware of the underlying message they’re sending when using it.
Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
No doubt, technical terms, jargon and foreign phrases have their Daseinsberechtigung. However, the use of such terms often alienates and excludes readers who are not familiar with them. Technical terms have to be unpacked to be understood. This creates a barrier to understanding and undermines the goal of clear and accessible communication.
Instead, Orwell argued, writers should strive to make their writing as widely understandable as possible, particularly when discussing complex or important topics. Abstract or vague locutions should make way for concrete words to make your writing more vivid and engaging.
I have yet to hear a teacher talk about their milestone achievements with regard to their increased impact on student progress. At least outside teacher conferences. What they do worry about is how their students can learn more. In the first example, the use of jargon obscures the meaning of the sentence. Written in plain English, the message becomes clearer and more credible, too.
Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
In writing rule number six, Orwell recognises that his guidelines are not set in stone. (As you can see I just violated rule #1 and the Earth is still spinning.) Good writing is as much about clarity as it is about variety. In Orwell’s mind, the goal is not to sound like an unaccountable and soulless bureaucrat or politician. So if it doesn’t get in the way of clear thinking and helps convey the truth go ahead and break the rules.
If an idiom or metaphor best expresses what you want to say, use it. Choose long words if they’re a better fit for what you want to say. Don’t shy away from varying your sentence lengths to give your writing a pleasant rhythm. Deploy the passive before betraying a friend who made a mistake. And definitely use the shared jargon of your profession so as to avoid looking like a complete numbskull in front of your peers.
Orwell’s writing rules must be seen within the context of his essay on language and politics. Still, they offer valuable insights into effective writing and are widely regarded as helpful principles by many writers. They’re in line with the advice from other great authors I refer to in my article about how to get better at writing. By incorporating these principles into your writing, you can enhance the clarity, simplicity and readability of your work.
That said, Orwell admitted that his rules did not only “sound elementary”. They indeed were. That wasn’t the real point, though. The benefit was in a “deep change of attitude” in anyone whose writing was characterised by lazy thinking. Following all six rules wouldn’t automatically turn you into a
very good writer. But it would make it impossible for you to produce meaningless technocratic nonsense.