“A man does not know what he is saying until he knows what he is not saying.” – G.K. Chesterton
Knowing both of those things is key to expressing yourself in our culture. Be it in a text message or a best selling book, you are probably going to write something today. Make it the best reflection of you as possible.
One way to better your writing is to learn from those who do it well. George Orwell wrote two of the most influential books of the 20th century –– 1984 and Animal Farm. That qualifies him as one who wrote well.
In 1946, he composed “Politics and the English Language,” a short essay in which he critiqued (then) modern English writing. He argued that our language, along with our civilization, was “in a general collapse.”
Since then, unfortunately, writing has only circled further down the drain … wait, sorry. That’s one of the types of writing condemned in the essay. Why don’t we simply move to the four writing habits Orwell tells writers to avoid?
|Photo from RGBstock.com by silverbleed|
1. Don’t write for the dead (dying metaphors) –– Are the visual comparisons you use in your writing the same ones your great-grandfather used? Stop writing for an audience that no longer exists.
Metaphors are intended to draw upon a shared visual bank and draw the reader into the text. New, vibrant metaphors do that. Old, dying metaphors are simply phrases that have been repeated so much they lengthen the thought without expanding it.
Be creative. It will take effort to replace the stock metaphors that everyone uses. In doing so, however, your writing will stand out. Don’t write for the dead.
2. Amputate often (operators or verbal false limbs) –– How often do you use phrases when a simple verb will do? Fight the urge to write “render inoperative” when you simply mean “stop.”
There may be times when a phrase is the most appropriate, but more often than not our sentences are crowded with “false limbs,” complex phrases used in place of simple verbs. Those need to be cut.
Length for its own sake tempts the writer, but it tends to obscure meaning more than clarify. Be as clear as possible. Amputate often.
3. Stay at home (pretentious diction) –– Does your writing have more languages than Google Translate? Foreign words bring unnecessary confusion to the reader.
Eventually, words and phrases from other languages enter our lexicon and our understood by everyone, but often times assumptions are made. You may think the audience will recognize your recently learned French phrase. In reality, they probably won’t.
Ask yourself if giving your writing an international flair is about helping your reader grasp your meaning or showing how “cultured” you are. Stay at home.
4. Kill the fluff (meaningless words) –– Unneeded words regularly camouflage ignorance or ill intent. Mercilessly end their fluffy little lives.
Various nouns have become essentially empty descriptive terms. These words can convey a sense of knowledge when none present. When concrete words are used merely as expressions of your feelings about a subject they can also deceive the reader.
Cultural catch phrases that have lost their meaning run through our language. The temptation is to allow them in your work. Don’t give in. Verbal dusty bunnies don’t deserve to live. Kill the fluff.
I would encourage you to read Orwell’s essay for yourself and seek to improve your writing, no matter how much or how well you write now. There will always be a need to write and to do it engagingly.
Later, I will have two more posts about the 1984 author’s advice to writers: 6 questions every writer should ask about every sentence and George Orwell’s 6 rules for writing.