Writing Tips from Big Brother’s Father

Posted: June 23, 2010 in General Writing Tips
Tags: , ,

George Orwell, author of the classics 1984 and Animal Farm, provided a concise guide to the fundamentals of good writing:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you 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.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

I thought for years that you couldn’t really add anything to that list; at least, nothing as foundational and universally applicable. But after wading through some particularly egregious passages today, I will humbly submit one more tip.

Tip # 7: Know your point, and make it.

Pointless text sucks the life out of the reader. I see pointless text almost every day in business settings, but it can pop up anywhere writers rush. Pointless text makes it painfully obvious that someone wrote it primarily so he could grab his To Do list and tick the check box next to “Turn in copy.” What a crappy way to repay someone who has, in good faith, taken time to read your words.

In addition to the autopilot writer who hasn’t stopped to wonder, “Why am I writing this and what should it accomplish?” stands the play-it-safe writer. She has a point clearly in mind, but chooses to cushion it in fluffed-up, multi-syllabic, ponderously passive prose. This writer mistakes directness for rudeness, or drastically overestimates the sensitivities of the reader.

Whenever you write without knowing your own point, or write to obscure your point, you might as well stop and ask whether that piece needs to exist. If so… why? (Hint: the correct answer omits the phrases “Because we’ve always done this!” and “Because my boss told me to.”)

Writing well requires courage. If you can avoid cliches, that’s good. If you can cut needless words and prefer short words, that’s plusgood. If you can find courage in your convictions and write boldly, undaunted by the looming specter of Big Brother: doubleplusgood!

  1. Martha Simpson says:

    Thought you’d appreciate this sentence from a white paper I recently had to edit. Think the writer was rushing along when she wrote this?

    “More than knowing what to look for, it is equally important to know where to look.”

  2. Scott Pinzon says:

    I love how “where to look” is simultaneously more important and equally important. Yep, sounds like hurried writing! Thanks, Martha!

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