Orwell’s 6 golden rules for writing, and when to break them

by George Francis, Account Director

Despite being cursed with a reading speed similar to that of most seven or eight-year-olds, I love nothing more than whittling away the hours with a good book or interesting article. Not only is reading entertaining and cathartic, but I also find it useful in my professional life too.

The more you read, the more you learn about different styles, linguistic tricks to help make your point and storytelling techniques that will keep readers interested for longer. The first author I’ll mention here, Hunter S Thompson, used to combat writer’s block by reading and retyping The Great Gatsby in the hope that some of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s genius would reach him by some weird process of typographical osmosis. It worked though, and Thompson’s unique and acerbic style is now recognised as one of the most compelling of the last century.

While I do enjoy Thompson’s substance fuelled joyrides through a world of decaying Americana, my favourite writer is, and has always been, George Orwell. Because I’m such a slow reader, I appreciated how comprehensively he could construct a world, as detailed as 1984’s bleak, totalitarian Airstrip One, in fewer than 300 pages. But that discipline doesn’t come from nowhere. Orwell used a very strict set of rules when writing. Rules he published as part of his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language”. Despite them being almost 80 years old, those very same rules still hold up remarkably well today. In fact, I have a copy of them taped to the wall of my office just to keep me right.

Like all good rules, there’s nothing complicated about Orwell’s guidelines, and they’re pretty much universally applicable to almost any kind of writing – whether it’s a 400-page novel or a 40-word email. For those of you who’ve never seen them, I’ve included each (along with my own take on them) below:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
    In other words, think of a more interesting way to explain that it’s wet outside than saying “it’s raining cats and dogs”.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
    Remember the episode of Friends where Joey uses a thesaurus to write a heartfelt letter in support of Monica and Chandler adopting? Yea, that’s what this rule is designed to prevent. Straightforward language makes your writing easier to read and easier to understand.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
    Reducing your word count will almost always make your writing better – it’s also the rule I most frequently fall down on. Orwell creates whole worlds in fewer words than lesser writers use just to set the scene. Read the last sentence you wrote – is there a ‘that’ serving no purpose or a word that you could remove without impacting the meaning of the sentence?
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
    Somewhere in the last 50 years we’ve all been taught to make our writing sound like it’s written for a scientific journal. But the truth is, something in the passive voice is normally harder, not easier, to understand.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
    You may think the latest technical jargon you heard on a Zoom call makes you sound smarter, but it doesn’t. None of the best communicators will use jargon and the very best will always speak in straightforward non-technical terms that everyone can understand. There’s a reason the physicist, Brian Cox, is so popular. He’s literally talking about the most complex, mind-boggling concepts in the entire universe, but he’ll hardly every use a technical or scientific term without explaining it first.
  6.  Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
    This is my favourite. All rules are made to be broken and this is Orwell accepting that every piece of writing is different, and you shouldn’t tie yourself up in knots trying to keep to these rules if they’re actually making your writing worse.

So, there you go, six golden rules to make your writing better. Of course, another way to improve how you communicate is to let us help. So, if you’re looking for support in your communications, marketing, social media or messaging and Mr Orwell isn’t quite getting you where you need to be, get in touch – we’d love to help.