Friday, February 04, 2005

Lessons from Orwell

In an essay entitled "Politics and the English Language" George Orwell lamented the debilitation of the English language by politics. He laid out a few rules which I think are a great guide for any writer.

(i) Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to
seeing in print.

ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Most writers would improve, I think, if they paid special attention to rule number one. Everybody uses cliched metaphors, similes and figures of speeches with abandon, and once you actually stop and take a look at your own writing for such lazy verbiage, its a real eye-opener. Orwell gives the examples of "an axe to grind," "ride roughshod over" and "Achille's heel." These types of phrases are signal a lack of imagination, laziness, and are sometimes used to gloss over holes in an argument.

If you can comb your writing for these types of overused memes, and weed them out, you will have a much clearer and concise product. Making writing clear and concise was Orwell's main concern, evidenced in his creation of the twisted "doublespeak" and "newspeak" in 1984. When the general usage of language decays, its no wonder that political discourse will follow, in a sort of perverse feedback loop. Or, as Orwell wrote, "[Language] becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts."

So, like, you know, clean up your writing, alright? Just sayin' is all.


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