George Orwell’s Advice for Writers: An Oldie but a Goodie

I’m excited about being back in the classroom soon. One of the best things about teaching, especially teaching writing, is that I am in a continual workshop, learning from my class preparation and my students as much as if not more than they learn from me.

For example, one of my favorite writing “textbooks” for college freshmen is George Orwell’s 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language.” My other favorite is Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. Call me old-fashioned, but nothing published since offers better advice for writers. (By the way, Orwell would not approve of the second part of this post’s title, “an oldie but a goodie”—or would it be goody?—its being a common figure of speech.) Interestingly, many of my engineering students grasp Orwell’s meaning more easily than I would have expected, the gist of which is as follows:

“What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way about. In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is to surrender them. When you think of a concrete object, you think wordlessly, and then, if you want to describe the thing you have been visualizing, you probably hunt about till you find the exact words that seem to fit it. When you think of something abstract you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning. Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one’s meaning as clear as one can through pictures or sensations. Afterwards one can choose—not simply accept—the phrases that will best cover the meaning, and then switch round and decide what impressions one’s words are likely to make on another person. This last effort of the mind cuts out all stale or mixed images, all prefabricated phrases, needless repetitions, and humbug and vagueness generally.”

He then offers six rules for clear, effective 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 barbarous.

After we read Orwell’s essay, I ask my students to find examples of his these rules being ignored online and in newspapers and magazines. The result is always as entertaining as it is instructive.

There are many online sources for the full text of Orwell’s essay, but my favorite is a pdf from Stanford that is nicely formatted and easy to print. It is worth taking some time to read slowly, section by section, savoring examples such as this one, letting them sink in and inform your own writing:

“Now that I have made this catalogue of swindles and perversions, let me give another example of the kind of writing that they lead to. This time it must of its nature be an imaginary one. I am going to translate a passage of good English into modern English of the worst sort. Here is a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes:

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.

Here it is in modern English:

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel 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.

In an essay in the Virginia Quarterly Review, Sanford Pinsker sums up why Orwell is as relevant today as when it was written, arguing its required reading not for students, but for writing teachers:

“Fifty years after ‘Politics and the English Language’ first appeared in the pages of Horizon magazine, I can think of no better antidote for much of the pretentious prose and threadbare argumentation being churned out on our campuses than this: anybody teaching a section of freshman composition should be required to read each of Orwell’s paragraphs and to understand the essential difference between the verbally quick and the linguistically dead. That many teachers will continue to disagree about which books are finally important, or how best to read a passage from Hamlet is a given; but if they can at least agree about the principles that separate clear writing from willful obfuscation, the literary enterprise will have made considerable progress. Even more important, their students (most of whom will end up as citizens rather than professors) may yet come to understand why clear writing is not only important for its own sake, but also for the writer’s very soul.”

7 thoughts on “George Orwell’s Advice for Writers: An Oldie but a Goodie

  1. What is interesting is when I was revising, I was automatically doing what Orwell’s six rules (expect the sixth – I think? I’m not sure what it means), and I never read ‘Politics and the English Language’. I just kept going through, do I really need this or do I really need a simile. Now, if I really liked it and it flowed well with the paragraph, once and a while I kept something, but most of the time it was out the door – I dropped 231 pages that way. I kept think Reader’s Digest.

    • Kelsey, it doesn’t surprise me at all that you followed Orwell’s rules instinctively, especially since you are an avid reader and you visualize what you are writing about. 231 pages cut! That’s impressive. I know how hard that is to do.

      The last rule is, as I understand it, about listening to the language above all else, and letting the sound of the words and the sentences come before anything else, even one’s own rules. 🙂

      • Thanks so much for explaining the sixth rule – listening to the langage is the most important, and I realized that this is what drives my decisions above all else. Thanks again : ).

  2. Many people like to believe the world is changing but again, sometimes the basic rules apply and when we follow them we eliminate the B.S. and allow for clear understanding. So many academics and educated people become almost incomprehensible because they don’t follow Orwell’s guidelines. Thank you for a good read and thought piece.

    • Roberta, thank you for your thoughtful comment! I completely agree about how some things don’t change nearly as much as we think they do. Just think of the continued popularity of Jane Austen’s novels, for example. I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

      I sympathize with many academics because the expected prose style is often stilted and full of jargon, and it takes some courage and skill to break free from it. Those who do, however, will be the critics and authors whose work lasts.

  3. First of all, Lisa–even if you’ve been away from the “classroom,” you haven’t stopped teaching. Your blog is a way to reach so many.

    Second, I love your clipboard/progress report. Is that something available on wordpress? Your inspire me to get back on track.

    Finally, what a great post. I’ve never read these comments by Orwell and they are so to the point. I love words and sometimes it’s tempting to complicate things by looking beyond the obvious, the simple word that communicates with clarity.

    Thanks for your encouragement. Your students are lucky…or blessed.


    • Victoria, your comment warms my heart! Thank you so much. It does surprise me how much I learn from blogs, and how blogging allows us to reach out and share both information and questions in ways that were unavailable a few short years ago.

      For the clipboard graphic, I found one I liked at, which is a great source of free graphics. Just check the requirements for each photo: some require you credit the source, others request that you ask permission first, and there are stricter rules for photos that have people in them. I then opened the clipboard in Paint and added the text and tally, changing it each day.

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