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How George Orwell’s 6 Rules for Good Writing can Elevate Your Content

If your writing lacks clarity and is uncomfortable to read, don’t crumble it and throw it away. The following six rules for good writing from George Orwell will help you refine your composition and make it fascinating to read.

Photo by Michael Dziedzic on Unsplash

George Orwell is arguably one of the twentieth century’s most unique and thought-provoking writers. His mesmerizing novels captivated millions, most prominently 1984 and Animal Farm.

Apart from his exquisite creativity and fascinating storytelling, his writings were always efficient, clear, and illustrative. You could easily connect with the characters and feel like you were with them in the story.

So, what makes Orwell’s imaginative writing so clear and easy to read?

Orwell vs Unclear Writing

Orwell was always a strong advocate of clear prose. He argued against vague and clumsy writing in his famous essay, Politics and the English Language.

I highly recommend you read it if you have the time (it is a little over 5000 words — might take about 20 minutes to read).

One of my favorite examples he gave in this essay was his imaginative translation of an excerpt from Ecclesiastes (an Old Testament book of wisdom literature) into so-called Modern English.

The original text:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Orwell’s Modern English version:

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

Although both passages lead to the same understanding that luck plays a major part in one’s success, the difference between them is as clear as daylight.

Following Orwell’s analysis, the original excerpt has 49 everyday-use words totaling only 60 syllables. The modern-English version has fewer words (38) but a whopping 90 syllables!

This shows that the second version contains longer words — 18 of which are of Latin origin and one Greek — not to mention the illustrative aspect of the original, portraying six clear pictures compared to the second version, which has no emotional aspect whatsoever, let alone a stunning phrase.

So, if you think your writing is vague, complicated, and uneasy to read, check out these six suggestions from Orwell for creating a good piece of writing.

The 6 Rules of Good Writing by George Orwell

As basic as these rules may sound, they are here to help you get out of the emotionless, unclear way of writing that has become so common in non-fiction writing today.

Orwell remarked in his essay, “they demand a deep change of attitude in anyone who has grown used to writing in the style now fashionable.” This was true back in his times and is as true today.

1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or another figure of speech that you are used to seeing in print.

In other words, don’t copy phrases from elsewhere to sound smart.

Clichés may sometimes portray you as unoriginal and lazy.

Reading between the lines can help you think outside the box so you can play your cards right in this uphill battle of proper writing. But know that the grass is always greener on the other side.

See what I overdramatically did there?

2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.

Long words can make your writing difficult to read. If a shorter word fits instead, go for it.

As Einstein once said: “Smart people simplify things.”

Go back to Orwell’s Modern-English example earlier to see this in action.

3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

When reviewing your writing, you’ll always find unnecessary words.

Words like “just”, “clearly”, “well”, and “apparently” can sometimes be redundant.

Cut them out.

Here’s an example:

Clearly, if you just pay attention to your mistakes, well you can basically write much better.

Cut the unnecessary words, and it looks like this:

If you pay attention to your mistakes, you can write better.

Same message. No nonsense.

4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.

Although the passive voice is common in academic writing, it can make your writing boring to read.

Where possible, rephrase your sentences with an active voice.

It flows better.

Which of these two sentences sounds better to you?

  1. These six rules were suggested by Orwell so better content could be created by writers.
  2. Orwell suggested these six rules so writers could create better content.

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

You don’t need to show off your French or your unparalleled understanding of scientific and business terminology.

Cul de sac is a dead end.

And pulchritudinous is beautiful.

And whoever came up with the phrase open the kimono is beyond me. Just say you want to reveal information—no need to be creepy and graphic.

As long as there’s a way to say what you want to say in simple words, do that.

If the term you’re using is important to the context, then go for it. I did that in #1 when I said “clichés”. If you think I could’ve used another word, let me know in the comments below.

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

While reading thus far, if you thought to yourself, “I am going to follow these rules blindly”, you’re making a mistake.

No rule is worth abiding by if you’re going to write something plain awful.

Good writing is honest writing.

These rules are not absolute. They are here to help you write better and think better.

Remember Joey from Friends when he wrote a recommendation letter to the adoption agency for Monica and Chandler? Have a laugh.

Joey Tribbiani uses a thesaurus to write a recommendation letter

Writing is easy only if you make it so.

Don’t write to impress.

Write to express yourself in the best way you can.

As a wise man once said, write from your full-sized aortic pumps.

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Samir Jaber

I write about writing. I write about science. Featured writer and former scientific researcher | My website: https://samirjaber.com