October 22, 2003

Orwell on Writing

I have worked in a consulting services business for many years, and was given this advice early in my career by a mentor; "Don't say 'blah, blah, blah', when all you need to say is 'blah'".

I often forget that maxim while blogging, figuring more words are somehow better than fewer words. I resolve to do better after reading this Jeffrey Meyers piece in The New Criterion, and then re-reading Orwell's essay "Politics and the English Language".

It's especially humbling to realize that I've broken nearly all of Orwell's six stylistic rules since I got up this morning. Meyers says they "are worth repeating". No kidding:

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.

Orwell deplores the use of "tired metaphors", pretentiousness, the passive voice, and unnecessary use of foreign phrases, but he saves his real venom for political writing, and it is from the following passage in "Politics and the English Language" that I previously lifted the quote that now sits on the Wizblog banner:

Political language -- and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists -- is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one's own habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase -- some jackboot, Achilles' heel, hotbed, melting pot, acid test, veritable inferno, or other lump of verbal refuse -- into the dustbin, where it belongs.

The entire TNC article on Orwell is enjoyable. Check it out. And like I said, I'm going to try to do better.

Posted by dan at October 22, 2003 11:11 PM