Wednesday, January 11, 2006

WORDS: All Writers Are Equal, but Some Writers Are More Equal Than Others

If you want to learn how to write good, then you need to read George Orwell.

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:

  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.
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.
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.)

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:

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]
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?

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?


landismom said...

I'm pretty sure I wouldn't buy that shirt. Almost as sure as I am that _Down & Out in Paris & London_ is the best. memoir. ever.

Orwell rocks! (or does he rule? there's some cliche that would work here.)

Caro said...

I’ve got to give “Homage to Catalunya” full recommendations, as well. It’s about his experiences during the Spanish Civil War, but also about what a nasty, mixed-up and confused world we live in and the little bits of pure happiness that can appear in it. I was living in Catalunya (the area around Barcelona) at the time and I could see the strong character he was talking about in the people I met on the street. He’s amazing.

--Deb said...

Hmmm . . . I've never liked his fiction, but I've never tried his essays. I'll have to check them out!

Erin O'Brien said...

Nice post. Good advice.

I started out as an electrical engineer. Then I was an editor and journalist. And a mother. I was developing my writing craft throughout this arc.

I tell novice writers and editors to imagine each word costs five dollars.

Don't believe me? Try this:

I value every single word I use. ($35)
I value words. ($15)

Word economy makes for better writing.

Dave said...

I’ve never read this essay in its entirety, although I’ve heard it referenced a lot. I’ll pledge to myself here and now to check it out. I don’t analyze my writing as often as I should—-it usually only comes in bursts of introspection after I’ve read Strunk & White or even Lynne Truss. I should probably bone up on those books as well.

Hackneyed phrases employed: 3
Unnecessary words: 15

Becky said...

A boyfriend in university who was writing his political science thesis on Orwell had me read "Politics," which taught me more about writing than anything I learned in a classroom at the time.

All (okay, most lol) I know about writing I learned from Orwell and E.B. White, with and without Strunk...

Carrie said...

Great post!

I have been thinking about it a lot recently. I love a tight, tense sentence, but I also occasionally delight in ridiculous overuse of silly words if they are written by someone who clearly loves to write. It makes me think, "Oh, right. This is fun, that's why I do it."

Then again, I love the Orwell and classic instructive writing texts in general.

Who I am kidding, I mostly just wanted so see my name in print again like most writers.

BWAH aha hha

Dee Paolina said...

Er, wouldn't it be "If you want to learn to write well..."?

Tammy said...

Daryl, I did that on purpose. Hmm... maybe my little joke wasn't as obvious as I thought.

tuckova, I totally agree with you. While loving everything Orwell had to say, I also have to admit that, in the right hands, flagrant rule-breaking is a marvelous thing. Because yeah, as Carrie points out, language can be fun. I don't think "fun" was one of Orwell's watchwords. And how weird -- I was actually wondering last night what Orwell would make of David Foster Wallace!

And now I have to dig up "Down and Out in Paris and London" and "Homage to Catalonia". I haven't read them in years amd years. Thanks for the reminders!

Anonymous said...

Speaking of David Foster Wallace, his new book of essays, Consider the Lobster contains a segment, "Authority and American Usage" that would be a nice companion piece to the Orwell essay you mentioned. DFW's piece is a must-read for any grammar snob (not that there are any of those here, nosirree...)

Anonymous said...

Egads.. how did you know that 1984 is the book I'm reading now? ;)

Spiky said...

RE New Criterion, I had a similar experience with the Weekly Standard. They ran an entertaining essay about joss Whedon, and I was like, hey, why don't I read this pub all the time? THen I clicked around the site and was like, Oh, that's why. Hmm.

Anonymous said...

Orwell's essay reminds me of Philosophy and Literature's Bad Writing Contest.

Spiky said...

The headline to this post is actually a pretty uncanny summation of the writing trade. "All writers are equal" could be the motto of all kinds of writers' groups and professional organizations -- like, "we're all in the same boat, so we should critique each other and/or bargain as a group." But really good writers follow a separate set of rules. They don't need critiques from so-so writers to improve their work, and they don't need collective bargaining to make a lot of money. They're more equal.

I guess it kind of makes sense that the writing world should be Orwellian in nature.