George Orwell Drops It: How To Be A Good Writer

George Orwell is a renowned inventor of language. He invented newspeak, the adjective ‘Orwellian’ is his baby-in-the-dictionary and to top it all off, he dedicated an entire essay to making cups of tea, the “proper” way, bolly! A true Goliath in the literary world, his influence can be witnessed in all kinds of places within popular culture as described below:

  • The producers of the miraculous television format ‘Big Brother’, (and at a usually unbeknownst fact to its intended audience) owe a sizeable debt to George.
  • The BBC television programme Room 101 lifted its speculative name from the torture chamber, where captives are intimately subjected to their own personal worst nightmare. In almost the same fashion, celebrities are invited to explore their pet hates. The room itself, was based on an actual Room 101 standing in the BBC Broadcasting House.
  • David Bowie’s 1974 concept record Diamond Dogs contains at least three 1984 inspired tracks: ‘1984‘, ‘Big Brother‘ (Blade Runner style brass at the start?) and ‘We Are The Dead‘ being the obvious candidates. As you can hear from these typically Thespian tracks, Bowie had envisioned his own glam-fest theatrical production of the book, but Orwell’s estate denied him the rights.
  • The Rage Against the Machine track ‘Testify‘ has Zack De La Rocha comprise the line: “Who Controls the Past Now/Controls the Future/Who controls the Present Now/Controls the Past”, a lyrical adaptation of The Party’s ideology.
  • V For Vendetta is a terrible 1984 rip-off, I’ve found most people who enjoy it, haven’t read the Orwell book.
    • The ‘2+2=5‘ lyrics from Radiohead’s Hail To The Thief are scattered with Orwellian newspeak concepts from 1984; juxtaposed, ambiguous statements like the song title itself and the line “January brings April showers”. This is somewhat befitting, since the artificial language is intended for political propaganda and there is rumour the album is rather politically charged…

If you wish to be a better writer, whether it’s writing essays, novels, reviews, lyrics, news reports, blogs. Orwell suggests you follow this simple set of rules to succeed, with my explanations below them:

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

This is to say that a cliché is overused for a reason. Do a lot of reading. Like any art-form, inspiration from intelligent and subtle borrowing is key. Respected musicians attempt to listen to all new music possible, affluent film-makers are aware of all the classics ever made both old and new, and successful writers flourish from an influx of reading, constantly learning tips and techniques from others.

2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.

Nobody likes a smart-arse! Unless there is a specific aesthetic purpose or connotation, don’t try and overdo it for the sake of some crappy transparent bookishness, your reader will always spy the superficiality lurking.

3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

Don’t waffle! Unless your school essay is particularly awful, and you need to up your word count pronto, always opt for a concise piece. After all, as thee Samuel Taylor Coleridge said:

Prose is words in their best order; Poetry is the best words in their best order.”

4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.

This is an extension of number three. An example of a passive phrase is “they were killed”. Making this active is a simple case of minute alterations to the verb order: “he killed them”. Not only does this keep things nice and current, but we are given an extra bit of information whilst keeping the sentence succinct. In the passive, it is unclear who killed “they”. But in the active, we learn it was “he” who killed them.

5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

Understandably using C’est la vie instead of “such is life” is a given, but again unless you are steering for a specific effect, steer clear. When you think of an English word, but your mind says “blast, what’s the Italian for that!?” just stop.

6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

At the end of the day (one of the top 10 most irritating phrases according to Oxford University), rules are made to be broken. A true master of their art is one in a position to know when to break the rules. The next time you feel like being savagely cruel, just use a long word instead of a short one, or something outrageous like that.

* Rules extracted from George Orwell’s essay ‘Politics and the English Language‘. Explanations my own.

Now shoo, get writing!

-James Godwin, January 6th, 2011

Copyright © 2011. James Godwin. All rights reserved.