Eric Arthur Blair (25 June 1903 – 21 January 1950), aka George Orwell, was a British novelist, poet, essayist, journalist and critic. He is best known nowadays for his fiction, in particular the wryly polemical Animal Farm, published in 1945 and Nineteen Eighty-Four, published in 1949, which charts the fate of mankind in a dystopian near-future. But his essays are also highly acclaimed as are his works of non-fiction which covered everything from working-class life in the north of England to an account of his experiences during the Spanish Civil War. He died at the age of 46 from complications arising from tuberculosis.
Orwell was a stickler for quality of writing and held himself to a high standard in his work. It is no surprise, then, that he had six rules that he used when tackling a piece of writing:
1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
This piece of advice is valid for any piece of writing, whether fiction, non-fiction or poetry. Of course, you want to avoid using the usual suspects: for example, “he was dead as a doornail.” Dickens destroys this particular simile once and for all at the start of A Christmas Carol when he says: “I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.”
So the rule is: never use outworn similes and metaphors.
But you could equally go in the opposite direction and invent preposterous similes in an attempt to avoid the trap. A few years ago the Huffington Post published a list of the 15 worst similes and metaphors perpetrated by high school students in English class. Here are some examples:
“She grew on him like she was a colony of E. coli and he was room-temperature Canadian beef.”
“She was as unhappy as when someone puts your cake out in the rain, and all the sweet green icing flows down and then you lose the recipe, and on top of that you can’t sing worth a damn.”
“The little boat gently drifted across the pond exactly the way a bowling ball wouldn’t.”
And lastly: “The ballerina rose gracefully en pointeand extended one slender leg behind her, like a dog at a fire hydrant.”
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
Paradoxically this rule is entirely determined by serendipity and whether or not you are a bibliophile.
Orwell certainly used this rule in his own writing to achieve a level of conciseness that possibly only Hemingway could match.
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.
It is interesting that Orwell here doesn’t just say “never use the passive.” There are some times when the passive is exactly what is needed, for example if you don’t want to reveal the identity of the person who is carrying out a particular action, or if you deliberately wanted to sound distant, official or vague.
There is a test you can do on your own writing to change the passive into active. It’s called the Paramedic Method and it was originally developed by Richard Lanham in a book called Revising Prose. If you are interested, a description of the method can be found here.
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.
This comes as something of a relief. Orwell was not so wedded to his own rules that he couldn’t break them if he thought it would help. Nevertheless, I find that is good to keep them at the back of the mind while writing, as a kind of inner guide to good writing.