Writing is about communication. So before you write anything, you need to know what you are communicating, and who you are communicating with. We do this automatically when we speak. When talking to a friend you speak informally, whereas you would speak differently to your boss. It’s the same with writing – there are different styles for different purposes. Novels and stories aim to entertain, to get you involved in a story, and so will have a completely different style from business letters, for example.
Styles of writing have also changed through the ages. A while ago it was fashionable to use long words to impress others with your mastery of language, and because people also liked the rich flow of these multi-syllable words. But the fashion has changed. As people became more aware of how people can actually hide their meaning behind their long words, the emphasis has become far more on writing simply and clearly. A famous writer who advocated for this was George Orwell.
He wrote, “A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”
He accused writers of using long and complicated words and sentences to hide the fact that they weren’t actually saying much at all. He wrote: “In certain kinds of writing, particularly in art criticism and literary criticism, it is normal to come across long passages which are almost completely lacking in meaning.”
He also accused politicians of using long words and all sorts of euphemisms to hide what they were doing. For example, did you know that the phrase ‘collateral damage’ often refers to the innocent people that are hurt or killed by mistake in an army attack? Some people may call that murder…
George Orwell had a few rules for writing, which have become famous:
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech that you are used to seeing in print.
- Break any of these rules if necessary.
Number 1 can also refer to long phrases, which could be replaced by a word. These phrases are padding, almost to hide that the speaker hasn’t got much to say! Many of us are in the habit of using these kinds of phrases – eg due to the fact that – why not just use the word ‘because’? Or rather than write, “Ascertain when it will commence,” use, “Find out when it will start,” instead.
Orwell’s third point recommends using the ‘active’ voice rather than passive. This means that rather than saying, “The resolution was passed by Parliament” say, “Parliament passed the resolution”. Or instead of saying, “A great time was had by everyone” you say, “Everyone had a great time.” This often makes writing more immediate, interesting, and also easier to understand.
Number 4 could be used to criticise expert or academic writers, who use such jargon only other experts can understand. There are ways of explaining complicated things in a simple way. In many ways writing simply is a real skill and it tests your own understanding of the subject.
Orwell’s fifth points to tired old phrases that start losing their meaning, such as, ‘think out of the box’, or ‘we need to raise the bar’. These kinds of metaphors (comparisons) have lost their meaning, and for creative writing and thinking we need to develop our own comparisons that help to illustrate what we are saying.
For number 6 – well, many critics of Orwell have often found that he broke his own rules quite often! However the rules are there to guide you, not to constrain you. And in today’s fast world, simple, clear and ‘to-the-point’ writing makes emails and letters much easier to understand.
Orwell later said that he wasn’t necessarily including creative writing, where you use words to paint a word picture of setting, character, and also to build up suspense. But even there many advisers will say that ‘less is more’ – for example, use one adjective rather than four, use one simile rather than two. For creative writing every word and image needs to be carefully chosen to express what you want to say.
So most people agree today that clearer, simpler writing is usually preferable to complicated and long words and sentences. There is a saying, “write to express, not to impress.” This is good advice. Writing always comes better from the heart!