Or, say you're not a writer (I almost wrote "say you're not an aspiring writer," which is kind of a bullshit phrase because either you write or you don't. If you're an aspiring writer, what are you waiting for? A pen?), but you just want the tools to understand why you hate the writing you hate... then you need to read Orwell, too.
I'm not necessarily talking about his novels, though I've certainly read Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four my fair share of times and can recommend them, provided you were already planning on being depressed. No, I'm talking specifically about his essays.
I can actually hear noses out there crinkling in disgust. Ewww... essays. But how many times do I foist essays on you? The answer: never. So give it some thought.
If you only read one essay by Orwell, make it "Politics and the English Language", which serves the double purpose of being an instructional manual on how to write well AND an exposé on how sloppy writing -- and our acceptance of same -- allows politicians and their sneaky ilk to get away with their crap.
Before we get to that, though, some things you might not know about Orwell:
Before he was a writer, he was an editor.
Before he was an editor, he was a journalist.
Before he was a journalist, he was a cop.
This career path actually makes perfect sense. How many times, as an editor, have I wished I had the power of the law behind me to force good grammatical behaviour? Something I didn't know until I read this piece by Jeffrey Myers in The New Criterion* is that Orwell struggled with the transition from editor to writer, and that this struggle partially manifested itself in his compulsive need to write:
Orwell’s illuminating comments on his own work show how desperately he wanted to be a writer and how long he had to struggle to become one... Orwell, able to write four serious articles a week (or about 200 articles a year!), was a desperately driven and manically compulsive writer.Orwell and I were separated at birth, apparently. Feeling shaky about morphing from editor to writer? Check. Manically compulsive? Check, and mate. We also share the same views on book critics:
He complained about the low standards of book critics and told his fellow novelist Anthony Powell, “the reviewers are awful, so much so that in a general way I prefer the ones who lose their temper & call one names to the silly asses who mean so well & never bother to discover what you are writing about.”It makes sense that someone who came to writing through editing should have given the craft and process of writing some serious thought. As I've already mentioned, Orwell's 1946 essay "Politics and the English Language" (available online in its entirety here) is a plea for not-so-common sense in writing.
I'll kick things off with his gorgeously simple list of six rules every writer should obey:
I'm not saying I'm not guilty of committing these sins on a daily basis, but in the years since I first read this essay, I've learned to watch for them, and when I do catch myself out, I abuse myself harshly. And believe you me, it's not easy for someone with my passion for a flamboyant turn of phrase to apply discipline to herself. I never stop being astounded by how easily hackneyed expressions creep into my writing, the insidious little buggers. (Point of note: "hackneyed expression" is, in and of itself, a hackneyed expression.)
These rules sound elementary, and so they are, but they demand a deep change of attitude in anyone who has grown used to writing in the style now fashionable.
- 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.
Speaking of avoiding exhausted clichés, here's a fabulous passage from "Politics" that I've worked desperately to internalize. If you only take one idea away with you, consider making it this one:
A newly invented metaphor assists thought by evoking a visual image, while on the other hand a metaphor which is technically "dead" (e.g. iron resolution ) has in effect reverted to being an ordinary word and can generally be used without loss of vividness. But in between these two classes there is a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves.You have to wonder how Orwell would feel if he knew that so many of the terms that originated with him -- "Big Brother," "newspeak," "doublethink" and, of course, "Orwellian" -- had been absorbed into the language and, may god have mercy on us all, were being widely abused by politicians and pundits. I'm glad he never had to find out. The poor man had enough troubles.
As long as I'm copying and pasting my favourite swathes of text... if you only take TWO ideas away with you, here's the second:
A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus:The unspoken questions here are: do I actually have anything original or meaningful to say? If I cut out all the anaemic turns of phrase and fifty-cent words and general linguistic clutter, am I left with anything of substance?
What am I trying to say?
What words will express it?
What image or idiom will make it clearer?
Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?
And he will probably ask himself two more:
Could I put it more shortly?
Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?
But you are not obliged to go to all this trouble. You can shirk it by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you -- even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent -- and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself. It is at this point that the special connection between politics and the debasement of language becomes clear. [emphasis mine]
But say the thought of kicking yourself in the ass (metaphorically speaking, of course) is just too taxing. Say you're thinking to yourself, Why doesn't everyone lighten up? It's just WORDS, fer chrissake. What are the political consequences of lightening up? Well, for one, it means nobody calls shenanigans on the ol' "Stay the Course" speech (coming up on its second birthday this spring), an insult to anyone with two brain cells to rub together.
Put that in your proverbial pipe and smoke it.
*Don't be alarmed. I haven't gone all right-wing or anything. This piece just had some interesting new (to me) biographical information on Orwell. I swear I'm not going to start selling "Bill O'Reilly Has a Posse" t-shirts on Cafe Press or anything... but if I did, would you buy one?