George Orwell was an English novelist, essayist and journalist; among some of his most famous works are the novels 1984, Animal Farm and Down and Out in Paris and London. He outlined six rules for better writing in his essay “Politics and the English Language.” He noted “But one can often be in doubt about the effect of a word or a phrase, and one needs rules that one can rely on when instinct fails.”
The following rules will cover most cases:
- Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
Orwell encouraged you to ask yourself: “What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?” Overused phrases like “leave no stone unturned” or “toe the line” often fall flat because they are so common.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
It is great to have a robust vocabulary, but don’t fall into the trap of trying to find fancy synonyms for all of your words. Many break this rule when writing personal statements or cover letters in an attempt to impress the reader.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
Clear and concise writing often doesn’t happen in the first draft. You will need to edit, edit, and then edit some more.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
Writers frequently break this rule, especially when writing resume bullets. An active voice is better because it is often shorter and more powerful. Not sure of the difference between an active voice and passive voice? Here is an example. Passive: The boy was bitten by the dog. Active: The dog bit the boy.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
This rule applies to non-academic writing because obviously scientific literature and publications will contain highly specific and technical language. For non-academic writing, it is important to follow this rule so that a layperson can understand.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
This last rule seems to be tacked on as a reminder to use your common sense about the application of the first five rules. Also, it seems Orwell could have followed rule #2 more closely and found another word for barbarous.
NOTE: Orwell applied the rules to politicians and political speak. You might be interested in his thoughts. Whether you are writing a personal statement, a cover letter or simply just an email, try these rules out.
Let us know what you think? What are some of your rules for writing well?