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orwell on writing

George Orwell and the Rules for Writing Well

George Orwell, an English-language writer and a world-famous dystopia-inducing novelist, has been one of the first inspirations for me to think and write about politics. To his credit, I have always treated Orwell as one of the important political thinkers.

Orwell, through his writings, has not only enabled us to think through the ways power operated through language much before the trinity of Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Jurgen Habermas but has also created politically sensible citizens who questioned (as well as know when their “questioning” was a problem to the rulers).

Beyond the simplistic understanding of how Orwell wrote, what he wrote, and how he thought one should write, I seek to dispel some of his writing tips for my readers in this essay.

In his well-received 1946 essay ‘Politics and the English Language’, Orwell notes that “our civilization is decadent and our language—so the argument runs—must inevitably share in the general collapse”. Orwell says, NO— “a man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks”.

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Photograph: Ralph Steadman | Photo: Guardian

Orwell and writing prose

Similarly, “Modern English is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble.” However, “if one gets rid of these habits, one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step towards political regeneration”.

After this brief premise, the essay points us to various bad habits we have acquired through imitating others and further drives us to how the English language could be made effective.

Most of the writing in the English language suffers either from “staleness of imagery” or “lack of precision”—meaning either the writer knows what they are talking about and cannot express it, or they do not know what they are talking at all. All that we read every day, most certainly in academia, are mired by these qualities.

Some even flaunt these qualities as the virtue of academic writing. Vagueness is a marker for most political writing. They allow the author to escape being accountable to their texts. As the saying goes: “Convince or confuse”—and there are no two ways about it. There are several tricks used to dodge prose in the English language:

Dying Metaphors

A metaphor evokes a certain “visual image” in a sentence. It helps readers to think of ways one comparison persists without actively comparing the other. But some metaphors are dead. They have no active evocative role except being mere words. And there is a huge dump of such words, says Orwell.

Some examples are: take the cudgels for, toe the line, in troubled waters, Achilles’ heel, hotbed, etc. These metaphors are so common in use that their initial meanings have disappeared. For example, when we use “in troubled waters”, do we imagine troubled waters? What are troubled waters, anyway?

Operators, or Verbal False Limbs

These exist in our writings without us knowing it. They save us the trouble of choosing appropriate verbs and nouns. The examples could help get a better sense: render inoperative, militate against, prove unacceptable, make contact with, be subjected to, give rise to, make itself felt, take effect, etc.

Instead of being a single verb: stop, spoil, mend, kill, break, these operators make these verb phrases. Apart from that, they also increase the use of passive voice instead of active voice. I, too, use them often, without my knowledge.

For example, with regards to, with respect to, the fact that, in view of, etc., are all the examples of verbal false limbs. Are there ways to avoid them as much as possible? Maybe, with conscious writing practice!

Pretentious diction

Most of what many of us write is pretentious—often, a desire to sound like an “expert” on something. To pretend requires an exploit of a dictionary. Therefore, we use words like phenomenon, element, objective, categorical, ontology, epistemology, constitute, exhibit, eliminate, etc.

These words give our sentences a false sense of impartiality, making us perfect scientific, rational humans. There is always a lot of unnecessary use of adjectives. We use words like “epoch” without knowing what it means (and this applies to me!).

Orwell says bad writers (especially scientific, political and sociological writers) use them. Some jargon is very peculiar to Marxist writing alone. Hangman, Petty Bourgeois, Proletariat, Red Guard, Lackey—all these vague terms only available to the students of Marxism.

Meaningless Words

In literary and art criticism, one may find that critics engage with the text using terms such as dead and living. For example, one critic may write, “the best part of Mr. Dope’s work is it induces life in the pipe as if the pipe is telling the story of a person with drug addiction”.

Another may write, “Mr. Dope’s work is as dead as it gets, without virtually any meaning in its characters, storyline”. Here, both “life” and “dead” allow the readers to get a sense of a difference of opinion. However, these kinds of words do not have meaning by themselves, without interpretation.

So, there is a lot of misuse of words in the political world. For example, we use the terms fascism (constantly to refer to something undesirable) and democracy (reference to everything desirable) without really knowing what they mean. For example: “Soviet press is the most free press in the world”, despite the opposite being obvious.

Elsewhere, he writes totalitarianism makes literature impossible. He imagines: “a totalitarian society which succeeded in perpetuating itself would probably set up a schizophrenic system of thought, in which the laws of common sense held good in everyday life and certain exact sciences, but could be disregarded by the politician, the historian, and the sociologist”.

orwell on writing well

[M]odern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else and making the results presentable by sheer humbug. The attraction of this way of writing is that it is easy. It is easier−−even quicker, once you have the habit−−to say. In my opinion it is a not unjustifiable assumption that than to say I think. If you use ready−made phrases, you not only don’t have to hunt about for words; you also don’t have to bother with the rhythms of your sentences, since these phrases are generally so arranged as to be more or less euphonious. When you are composing in a hurry−−when you are dictating to a stenographer, for instance, or making a public speech−−it is natural to fall into a pretentious, Latinized style.

Using stale metaphors, similes and idioms will only leave your readers puzzled at the end of the sentence. They will find it hard to understand what you want to say. It will not, in any way, help create a visual image.

Writing bad prose is the virtue of our times—since the time this author wrote this essay. All the political writings—the speeches, white papers (so rarely are they released), notices, manifestoes—are replete with bad prose.

Orwell gives us six tips on writing well:

  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 barbarous.

These tips are so basic that anyone reading them would easily concur with them but find it difficult to practice. When Orwell cautions those of us writing to avoid metaphors in print, he merely is inducing us to think creatively.

Be original. Sure, originality takes a lot of time, thinking, and effort! It is worth the shot (see how I used “worth the shot” without my knowledge—and this Orwell asks us to avoid). These tips will allow more space for you to express yourself. He also hints at keeping our writing simple.

We often have a shared sense of complicating things—words, as well. We want to act smart and like we know something—and Orwell advises against that false pretence. Once your draft is ready, reread it—and see if you can cut anything down. Suppose a word is an extra, and there would be too many extras, so cut them out.

Using simple words also refers to using an active voice rather than a passive one. Use active voice. It helps you to have clarity in your sentences. And finally, Orwell cautions against rules in writing well. If you deem it necessary, break these rules. All these tips help enhance the clarity, coherence, simplicity, and readability of your writing.

Cover Photo: Ralph Steadman’s Surrealist Illustrations of George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1995)


Suggested Reading:

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Why I Write by George Orwell.

Buy the book in India or Globally.


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