The Graveyard

The Lair Of Gary James

Do I Really Want To Write Like George Orwell?

Posted by BigWords on August 18, 2009

The current issue of Writing Magazine (September 2009) contains an article called How To Write Like George Orwell, and the author (Tony Rossiter) makes some good points about clarity and brevity. It’s a useful way to look at any piece of writing, but looking at the work of authors who are acknowledged as being ‘greats’ can hamper as much as inspire. I’m not sure I would ever be able to compare something of mine to another author, even taking loose stylistic similarities into account.

Back to Orwell, and there is sense in his advice…

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 possibly 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 rather than write anything outright barbarous.

Orwell knew what he was talking about, but as time has moved on there have been shifts in society, which make for some difficult choices when considering how to take some of the helpful observations. I’m completely in agreement with the elimination of overused and redundant phrases, primarily because they tend to pull a reader out of the story. Cutting out words which serve no purpose is equally valid, though I am less inclined to remove a word from a kick-ass line for fear that it might neuter the idea.

Yeah, I am familiar with the old “murder your darlings” advice dished out by writing resources. The phrase does, sadly, break Orwell’s first rule, therefore I am going to ignore it. It’s been used so often that it may as well be consigned to the scrapheap straight away, to be replaced with something similar but fresh. “Kill those kids” might be taken the wrong way given the high number of school shootings, but unless anyone has a better line…

Never use a long word. Hmmm. Considering the relative complexity of modern language, there really isn’t any way of eliminating long words. Excessive use of longer words might be limiting as far as audience is concerned, with works being considered ‘difficult’ if they contain too many. It’s a trap that I often find unavoidable. Should I simplify to entertain the masses or remain stoically determined to educate the dumber less verbose audience?

Passive phrases, while frowned upon, have certain uses. It’s unusual to find, but there are instances of passive passages that remain compelling. They have been used to show disassociation with events, and can have a powerful effect in displaying the mental breakdown in a character as they slowly remove themselves from the world around them. I’m out on a limb with this observation, but I stand by the use of passive voice in contained and limited use.

As far as foreign phrases are concerned, I can’t disagree more strongly with Orwell. Heresy? Nyet. As long as the sentence makes sense, and the foreign word doesn’t confuse things, any word can be dropped into a text. Anyway, the internet is so prevalent nowadays that a reader confused by a word can simply look it up. If using strange vocab was good enough for Anthony Burgess, then it’s an acceptable tool in the arsenal of writers interested in broadening the horizon of their work.

Scientific words can go either way. I’m partial to terms that clearly define specific and limited areas. Words which cannot be changed to a simplified alternative are increasing as more and more speciality areas crop up in computing, engineering, archaeology and other occupations. I like seeing specific uses of technical terms, especially in thrillers. Verisimilitude is hard to achieve when you are pulling your punches.

Orwell was smart enough to realize that no rule is unbreakable.

Whenever I see these types of excercises I get the feeling that some people will take the rules too seriously, and that is where pastiches and awful “wannabe” stories crop up. Don’t try to be your writing heroes, but use them as a touchstone to bounce off of every once in a while. It’s very tempting to appropriate the voice of a respected author, but anything written in that voice will be a hollow and transparent copy.

Go read Nineteen Eighty Four and see what Orwell was talking about.


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