PR Tips | Orwell’s Rules for Writing
George Orwell is best known for 1984, his fictionalized account of an authoritarian dystopia in which all human activity is tightly controlled by a central authority. That work has endured because, in addition to being marvelously well written, it’s proven prescient about the inner-workings of modern totalitarian states.
But Orwell was also a prolific and powerful essayist. “Politics and the English Language” is one of his most influential entries. And it includes a short set of writing rules that are highly applicable to crafting op-eds.
This list is already famous. You might already know about it. But it’s worth revisiting regularly:
- Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
There are two overriding principles to these rules.
First, a focus on simplicity. Sophisticated ideas are best expressed in straightforward language. Big words usually only serve to alienate readers while failing to provide any additional precision to your point.
And an essential element of simplicity is brevity. Orwell understood that the exact same argument expressed in half the number of words is more than doubly powerful. Excess language muddies the ideas contained in the sentences. Long run-on sentences, with clauses on clauses, will usually make your piece much less forceful.
Remember that the key purpose of an op-ed isn’t to impress – it’s to convince.
Second, Orwell’s list urges writers to avoid staid language. Well-worn metaphors don’t serve to illuminate your point. They’ve become so popular they’ve lost any linguistic force. Instead, you want to focus on expressing yourself as originally as possible. That will make your writing more likely to capture a reader’s attention.
Of course, there’s no hard and fast scientific formula to effective writing. These rules are a blueprint. But they aren’t the law. And that’s why we get #6. It leaves room for stylistic flourishes and special cases.