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George Orwell Hated Crappy Writing

What George Orwell lacked in his sense of facial hair fashion (see photo), he more than made up for in his writing ability.

I suspect that many of you, since you are reading a blog about books, are avid readers.

Many avid readers, I would propose, have at least a passing interest in writing–most of you have blogs, I’ve noticed.

As a writer myself, I love to read how more experienced writers approach the writing process. So, when someone like George Orwell offers writing advice, I listen.

Here are a few of Orwell’s excellent tips on writing, from his essay “Politics and the English Language”:

  • 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.

Orwell hated fluffy writing. “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink,” he said.

In other words, cut the B.S. That’s why he hated political writing–and who can blame him? Sixty years later, politicians continue to be the masters of saying absolutely nothing with as many words as possible.

So what tips would you offer about writing? I’ll start: Know your contractions. “You’re” and “your” mean different things. Same goes for “it’s” and “its.” Know the difference!

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40 Comments Post a comment
  1. RFW #

    Don’t forget about their, there, and they’re.

    February 28, 2011
  2. As a natural-born-writer Orwell struggled against the floweriness in language in order to write exact and sincere. He declared that Animal Farm was the first one he tried to “fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole.” I think that is why Orwell remains such an influential writer.

    February 28, 2011
    • Agreed.

      February 28, 2011
  3. Patti #

    Be willing to cut something out if it doesn’t fit with the rest of the piece – even if it’s your favorite part.

    February 28, 2011
    • Yep, or either rework the piece to fit your favorite part. That usually takes too much time, though.

      February 28, 2011
  4. Thanks for reminding us of some simple rules of good writing. I’ve worked as an editor for over twenty years and Orwell’s rules (and yours!) apply to any type of writing, not just fiction.

    February 28, 2011
    • Very true, Margaret. I’ve always thought you can get away with a little more in fiction–take James Joyce, for instance. But I guess you still need to know the rules in order to break them!

      March 1, 2011
  5. Was Orwell a fan of Edgar Allen Poe because he liked to cut as much fluff as possible as well. Perhaps it comes from being a newspaper man.

    March 1, 2011
  6. J. #

    My senior year in high school, my English teacher gave me the best writing lesson ever: whatever I handed him, he’d hand back and say, “cut it by a third.” Used to drive me crazy. But man, when you are faced with needing to choose which sixty-seven percent of your work gets to stay and what goes, you know that even if some good stuff might get cut, only the best stuff gets to stay.

    I also knew I was doing better as a writer by the end of the year when I gave him an essay and he only wanted me to cut it by a fourth. :-)

    March 15, 2011
  7. As a writer watching my son survive college writing classes, knowing his personality and his wrong language tendencies, I’ve concluded that, at least sometimes, we cushion our message in “thesaurus words” because we fear a harsh reaction.
    Only a long time writer knows–no matter how you cushion it, harsh reactions will spring up.
    When my writing matters more to me than my ego, then it improves.

    March 15, 2011
  8. Ted #

    #3 reminds me of a sign I saw, once, in a public restroom, above the paper towel dispenser: “Don’t use two when one will do.”

    March 15, 2011
  9. insightful !!

    March 15, 2011
  10. Thank you for posting this! Every time I learn something about Orwell I become more intrigued. A writer has to be willing to put his or her ego aside to write as he suggests; which is what I love about his writing.

    March 15, 2011
  11. Loved the article. Orwell’s tips are great. I also appreciate Stephen King’s book, On Writing.

    March 15, 2011
  12. jonblake12 #

    “Never use a long word where a short one will do”. How does that apply eg to Saki, whose humour is based on circumlocution?
    Always beware rules about writing. And while I agree Orwell was a great journalist, was he really such a great novelist? His characterisation was facile.

    March 16, 2011
    • I’m currently reading an Asimov novel, Nemesis, and from his introduction, he seems to have a similar disdain for fluffy writing.

      It’s interesting that these talented writers, more interested in the telling of the story than the style it’s told in, have a sort of reverse snobbery about writing styles.

      March 17, 2012
  13. Always rules to keep in mind. English is a beautiful language, an interesting synthesis of a down to point approach and a very artistic use of words. I love adverbs though, which are a contradiction to the recommendation to cut out words which are not necessary. I like to play with words in writing.
    Orwell was certainly a master of this skill and it helps to keep his tips in mind.



    March 16, 2011
  14. I love Orwell’s ‘Why I Write’. It opened up my eyes to things I hadn’t even realised about my own writing processes. I highly recommend it!

    March 16, 2011
  15. Maybe this is why Melville’s “Pierre, or, the Ambiguities” was such a horrendously painful book to read. He completely forgot to ‘cut out the fluff’, like 240 pages of it.

    March 16, 2011
  16. For me, I prefer to write it as I’d say it. If I read it out loud and the pauses are in the wrong place or the words trip over each other, I need to go back and delete and re-write.

    If a thought comes to me whilst in the middle of a paragraph that has no bearing, I write it down anyway – as word-processing allows me to keep moving that line down to the bottom of the page. If it comes in useful later, I use it:

    This allows me to keep up with my ever fertile and racing mind (something I usually struggle to do).

    March 22, 2011
  17. cappylove1211 #

    I wonder what Orwell considered barbarous. He lived through both World Wars but died in 1950, well before the current Age of Rudeness began.

    August 17, 2011
    • he gives (I believe 5) examples of barbarous writing in the cited essay — basically insincerity in any form or ‘switched-offness’

      April 8, 2013
  18. Ron #

    Orwell broke one of his own rules: his great novel 1984 uses jargon from the invented language of Newspeak.

    August 28, 2011
    • Yeah, but he’s using it in a way that criticises and mocks that type of writing.

      I’m not totally sure if you’re being ironic here…

      March 17, 2012
    • Adam Martin #

      Nice job understanding the point.

      September 10, 2013
  19. If you have ever try to write, you will realised that you have struggle between this rules in order to express your thought. Seeing it listed has given me first hand what is it am working to achieve.

    April 23, 2013

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