Thursday, July 30, 2009

Orwell's six rules of writing

There's a graphic that's going around now, and which I first found here, that shows a somewhat modified list of George Orwell's six rules of writing. I learned these in grammar school, and they've subconsciously guided my writing ever since (along with my judgment of others'), but it's worth repeating them. I don't know where the graphical version originally came from or why the rules were re-phrased in such clumsy ways, so I wanted to post the rules as Orwell originally wrote them:

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

(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

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

(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

He wrote these for a 1946 essay called "Politics and the English Language", the point of which was to discuss the decline of language in political writing into imprecision and incoherence. His essay would be just as applicable to political writing today, but his rules can really cover any kind of writing, including blogs.

I'd actually add one rule of my own, which is, "read each sentence and paragraph aloud. Reorganize and punctuate accordingly." Too many people write in a disorganized stream of consciousness, which is an easily solvable problem if you just read your own writing back and self-edit.

By the way, when I was in school, kids would often look at rule #6 and take it to mean "break the rules if you think you're smart enough", and of course everybody then did in an attempt to show that they were. When the teacher would call them out on it, they would pretend to be little geniuses who knew more about writing than the teacher and would stand behind rule #6 as a defense.

But the point of the 6th rule is to act as a hedge against the inherent imprecision of the English language, which even Orwell acknowledged. Rules 1-5 are intended to increase that precision, which is the opposite of what flowery language riddled with cliches and jargon does.

His rules boil down to being simple and direct, the foundation for great writing. (My little addition is for the same purpose.)


  1. i think Hemingway must have agreed with Orwell, or vice versa

  2. I stumbled across this and liked it. Great post. I included it in my weekly roundup.


About This Blog

This is increasingly not a blog about Alphabet City, New York. I used to live in the East Village and work on Avenue B, but I no longer do. Why don't I change the name if I'm writing about Japan and video games and guitars? Because New Yorkers are well-rounded people with varied interests, and mine have gone increasingly off the rails over the years. And I don't feel like changing the name. I do still write about New York City sometimes.


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