Six Pixels of Separation - The Blog
September 5, 200811:37 PM

6 Writing Rules To Master

If you want to write like a best-selling author, you might as well listen to what one of them thinks about writing.

George Orwell may be best known for the books Animal Farm and 1984, but there is a lesser-known essay he put together titled, Politics and the English Language, that featured his six rules for better writing:

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.

Here's what he wrote about his rules:

"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. One could keep all of them and still write bad English... I have not here been considering the literary use of language, but merely language as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought... If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself."

He wrote this essay in 1946.

Words matter. With publishing tools like Blogs and Twitter, maybe they matter even more.

Great rules are timeless, no matter how much technology changes the platform by which they are delivered.

(hat tip to Hugh McGuire from LibriVox)

By Mitch Joel


Comments Comments Feed
  • Posted by Susan Murphy
    Mitch Joel

    I would add:

    Write from the heart. Don't be contrived, or manipulative. Simply state what's inside you, and it will resonate with your readers.

    Reply
  • Posted by stephen baker
    Mitch Joel

    Another tip, courtesy of Elmore Leonard: Avoid adverbs, for the most part. Instead, look for verbs that handle the work alone. Stammer, grope, stumble, plummet. Words like that blow away a lot of describers ending in ly. Also, I'd say, German beats Latin, at least in English. Darken is better than obfuscate.

    Reply
  • Posted by Keith Burtis
    Mitch Joel

    I don't like the word never. Never to me is a point of limitation. In fact, rules from an artists point of view, when broken are often the times when you are most creative.

    In looking at these time tested rules I have no doubt that they are "Best Practice" Maybe to be profound we might look at skating the "Edges" of these rules. Who's your audience? Do these rules matter to them?

    I am not a professional writer by any stretch, however I am working on a book. I agree with Susan. Speak from the heart, speak with passion, and "NEVER,NEVER" die with the music still in you.

    Reply
  • Posted by mark cigos
    Mitch Joel

    A humbling for me today Mitch. Thank you for posting this.

    Sometimes some of us feel that we're above the foundation. I'm guilty of this.

    A great lesson learned today. Thank you very much.

    Reply
  • Keith - your comment made me smile.

    I think you're spot on.

    Keep in mind, his comments were made in 1946. I think we can both agree that if you remove the word "never" it's still a mighty list/lesson on how to write and be a better communicator.

    Reply
  • Posted by Andy Strote
    Mitch Joel

    Once a year, re-read The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. At just 105 pages, you could read it in one sitting and get all the rules you need. First published in 1957, it's still fresh today.

    Reply
  • Posted by Favelle Maschke
    Mitch Joel

    I think the rules you have outlined make it easy for people to write in plain language.

    Reply
  • Posted by Mike Kujawski
    Mitch Joel

    Thanks for posting this up Mitch! Orwell has long been one of my favourite authors/satirists. If only more people took this kind of advice seriously and actually applied it.

    As a business professor and consultant I am constantly exposed to the ol' "more is better" writing style. I have seen 200 page strategic reports that could effectively be summarized in 10 pages. In fact, I myself am guilty of a few (I had been specifically asked by a client to make my report "thick"). This begs the question: Where did it come from? Why do so many people try to throw in big words and fluffy prose any chance they can get?

    I agree with all of the comments on here, especially Keith's. At the end of the day, your writing style should depend on the audience you are writing for. This is especially the case in business writing, where the Executive Summary is king. The natural exception of course being artistic writing (e.g. poetry) and pure writing from the heart, without any particular intent to satisfy the needs of an audience (or to sell).

    I was particularly inspired today by Chris Brogan's new e-book on personal branding. Even though most of the material wasn't new to me, the book's structural simplicity and plain writing style made me absorb the information in a whole new way.

    Reply
  • Posted by theWeir
    Mitch Joel

    Hey Mitch, thanks for the reminder. I loved going back and reading this essay after your post.

    Hope life is great with you today.

    Reply
  • Posted by Ari Herzog
    Mitch Joel

    ...although #5 depends on your audience. If you cater to an international demographic, you want to intersperse non-English words.

    Reply
  • Posted by atleb
    Mitch Joel

    3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out
    ==>
    3. If it is possible to cut a word out, cut it
    ;)

    nice principles, always good to take a step back and reflect on how and why you write

    Reply
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