Politics and the English Language, Rule 1

Sixty Years Later and We Still Write Like Goons.

In 1946, George Orwell published an article called Politics and the English Language. In it, he argued that lazy writing was ruining the precision of language, and enabling political corruption. He suggested six rules by which authors should judge their writing; they are as insightful and valuable today as they were at the end of World War II.

I will discuss all six rules in separate posts, including examples.

Rule 1: “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.”

George’s first rule is also his most controversial. Symbolism, in words or phrases, is powerful and surprising, and when people decipher the symbols in their own language, they are loathe to give them up. But you must to become a better writer.

One origin of the word cliché is the sound made during the process of making duplication plates for stereotype machines in the 1800’s. (That’s right: stereotype machines. Etymology is eerie.) When you use a cliché, your writing becomes more similar to that of thousands of others.

But the main reason to avoid hackneyed vocabulary is that it kills clarity. Some people use “fuck” as a catch-all word because they are too impatient or ignorant to find the right one to express themselves. More discreet folks will turn to the trite rather than the profane, but the effect is the same. The next time a cliché appears in your text, ask yourself, “Is this the polite equivalent of saying fuck (or some variation)?” If so, rewrite it.

For example, in that mystery story you’re writing, is it really “raining cats and dogs?” Would it be better to say “the rain was enough to drown out the sound of screaming?” (It’s not a great alternative, but it’s certainly more useful, and more likely to resonate with the reader.) Observe (or imagine) what you are describing more closely. Let your mind draw its own comparisons, and create exactly the mood and effect you intend.

If you don’t tow the line with this rule, you’re taking your readers for a ride, and you’ll be up the creek without a paddle. So to speak.

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  1. #1 by Joanne - September 12th, 2011 at 14:07

    I like your ideas. One correction: you “toe” the line. You don’t “tow it.”

    • #2 by yoursinwriting - April 11th, 2013 at 23:21

      Thanks! I’d say I can’t believe I made that mistake but unfortunately I can.

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