18 June 2005
How to write like Orwell

George Orwell, as Scott Burgess demonstrated this week, was a great writer.  When he wrote he followed rules, the most important being:

  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.

These are not new to me.  I first read them in 1990 in the introduction to the Economist Style Guide.  Ever since I have tried my best to follow them.  Sometimes I have succeeded.

The rules are found in this essay from 1945 (warning: reading someone pointing out that you can’t write hurts).  What strikes me about Orwell’s writing is how up-to-date and clear it is.  It is 60 years old and it still feels fresh.  The rules work. 

Update The above took me about an hour to write.  Writing good English (and I am not claiming it is) is hard work.

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  1. I read that essay during my English classes for A level. I have tried to follow those rules in everything I write. A blog entry can take me a couple of hours from the initial brain dump through the rewrites and proof reading. Even then, it is not unusual following publication for me to tweak the wording or punctuation.

    Orwell was an excellent example of clear, precise writing.

    Posted by Mark Ellott on 18 June 2005 at 12:32pm

  2. >The above took me about an hour to write.

    If I was a cheeky sort, Patrick, I would point out that half this post consists of a long quote from someone else! Good thing I’m not at all a cheeky sort, eh?

    Posted by Scott Campbell at Blithering Bunny on 18 June 2005 at 02:29pm

  3. I think it depends what kind of stuff you’re writing. If someone like David Sedaris followed these rules, his writing would be ruined.

    Posted by Jackie Danicki on 18 June 2005 at 03:37pm

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