Once Again: 6 Tips for Writing from George Orwell.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day, or List Day, or Quiz Day.

This Wednesday (again): 6 rules for writing from George Orwell.

Last week, I posted six rules for writing from George Orwell, but that post was swallowed up by the internet. I was quite pleased by the number of people who wrote to ask where the list had gone, so I’ve decided to re-post it.

I loved rules for writing: for instance, here are rules from Mindy Kaling, Kurt Vonnegut, Henry Miller, and Flannery O’Connor.

In one of his most famous essays, “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell writes that “the following rules will cover most cases”:

1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which 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. (I’m charmed by his example: use “snapdragon,” not “antirrhinum.” Snapdragon is so much nicer.)

6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

I find these rules to be enormously helpful. It’s so easy to use tired, shopworn figures of speech. I love using long, fancy words but have learned–mostly from writing my biography of Winston Churchill–that short, strong words work better. I am ever-vigilant against the passive and against jargon, both of which are so insidious.

However, I have to be cautious with #3. I love to cut so much that I have to be careful not to cut too much. My writing tends to become very dense, so I have to keep some cushion. Sometimes, words that seem superfluous are actually essential, for the overall effect.

One thing that makes me very happy is to have a complicated idea and to feel that I’ve expressed myself clearly. I remember writing the ending to Happier at Home. I wrote the entire book to build to that ending–“now is now”–and what I had to say was very abstract, and yet, I felt satisfied that I managed to say what I wanted to say. One of the happiest experiences I’ve had as a writer was when I typed the final lines,  “Now is now. Here is my treasure.”

How about you? Do you use these rules–or any others?

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  • peninith1

    Oh THANK YOU for posting these again. I wanted to print them so that I could keep them close by me, and I was sorry they vanished!
    P.S. I have to share again my favorite abuse of overworked phrases (#1) from many years of editing: “We must not allow our hands to be tied by rules of thumb.”

  • HEHink

    Related to #3, a college English professor told the story of another writer’s trick to help prevent overuse of the word “very”: Wherever you see it in your writing, replace it with the word “damn.” Then go back and cut out all the “damns.”

    • http://www.vhbelvadi.com Venkatram Harish Belvadi

      Was it not Mark Twain who said that?

  • Sarah Spitz

    How nice to read this wednesday tips! He was just an inspiring man… something like her, Gala Dalí, our Queen Bee of the week!

    http://lasagnolove.blogspot.de/2013/11/queen-bee-of-week-gala-dali_14.html

    Love from Germany
    Birdy and Bambi

  • BKF

    Great post! And I did admire that ending, Gretchen.

    I feel sorry for words that are overused so much that they don’t have their original meaning anymore (amazing, awesome, incredible, excellent, love, and so on). I think that there is a place for “big” words but in the right context. (I love the writing of John Banville, for example and I need a dictionary with it!)

    It really bothers me that so many people – even educated ones- write using incorrect grammar. I just received an invitation to a holiday party that states,” This event is for adult’s only.” :-(

    • gretchenrubin

      I so agree, especially about “awesome.” It’s such a wonderful word, but can’t really be used anymore, because it’s become such a slang term.

  • Kristin

    One of my favorites, a paraphrase of an idea attributed to Albert Einstein, that everything should be as simple as it can be but not simpler!

  • Janice

    Orwell’s rules remind me of The Elements of Style. Today, these rules are standard advice in the world of English teachers and journalists. From that perspective, I’d add another: Any sentence with more than two forms of punctuation inside it is too long. For the wisdom of that one, turn to my best BAD writing “teacher,” Henry James. I still struggle with Jamesian run-on sentences. The ultimate rule, even for the English teachers, is to be conscious and caring of your writing enough to apply the rules. Good writing is rewriting, and that takes commitment. Guts, too, sometimes.

    • peninith1

      I would not say that Henry James wrote ‘run on’ sentences, but he certainly did write compound, complex sentences to about the third power. I love the description of his writing by (?) “Henry James chewed more than he bit off.” Incidentally, playing with dead metaphors sometimes can be really funny!

      • Janice

        He certainly did all of those things, which in lesser hands are apt to become run-ons, a few too many compounds in the complexity. He had a few too many as well, IMHO. I love James, but he had a very bad influence on me at an impressionable age. In the spirit of Orwell, I’d say that repeated use of compound-complex sentences is off-putting to readers.Loved your quote! Maybe Twain?

        • peninith1

          My mind is saying T.S. Eliot, yet that seems unlikely. Twain? Not enough of a contemporary.

          • Janice

            http://faculty.citadel.edu/hutchisson/Pages/343page.htm

            This site (in a Google search) claims it was Twain, who seems to be credited by others as well. An article by Russell Baker in the NYT in 1998 claims it was Peter de Vries. Others attribute this to Mrs. Henry Adams. All seem plausible.Twain’s life spanned 1835-1910 and James’s 1843-1916, so they certainly were contemporaries. He gets my (tentative) vote.

        • peninith1

          P.S. FAULKNER was my ‘bad influence’ yet I continue to deeply love his writing–which is not Orwellian at all!

  • Graciella

    Ahh, good writing and reading is food for the mind and fresh air for the soul. Thank you.

  • Veronique

    Orwell, to me, is the most perfect writer. I have read everything he has ever written. He is also one of the few people who, when I read his biography, walked away liking more than when I began it.

  • http://www.hellobrio.com/ Jennifer Coyle

    Thank you thank you for sharing! I didn’t know you did a series of tips for writing, as I’m semi-new to your blog. I’m clicking over to check out Mindy Kaling’s (which I’m sure are hilarious) and also Kurt Vonnegut’s. Since I finished your Happiness Project book, you never cease to be inspiring and an amazing force in my life. Thank you again!

  • beck

    Missing Word? “1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which [YOU] are used to seeing in print.”

  • Natasha

    I get so many email everyday, and all mail to be answered. Sometimes I feel out of words, and special when I am disturbed by the colleague. So the rules helped me to respond more quickly than usual. Thank you.

  • HarbingerDaily

    George Orwell is one of the most intriguing and perceptive writers ever to exist. Down and Out in Paris and London is my favorite book of all time. Thank you for giving space on your site to his insights on writing!