Rules For Writers

A weekly letter from the founding editor of The Browser. Topics may vary. Correspondence and criticism welcome:

This Week: The Persistence Of George Orwell

There are no good universal rules for writers. And yet, in moments of weakness, many writers feel an urge to set down "rules" for other writers in which they describe the habits which have served them well in their own years of craft.  

Living writers who stumble down this rabbit-hole soon bump into the ghost of George Orwell. Orwell's "six rules" for writers, included in a 1945 essay called Politics And The English Language, have become a mandatory part of every style guide, and I have yet to find a majority against them. You are doubtless familiar with them, but let me reproduce them here for ease of reference. They read, in full:

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.

I found myself revisiting Orwell this week after learning, by way of my Browser colleague, Caroline Crampton, that David Bentley Hart, a noted American writer on religious matters, had recently experienced his own moment of weakness, and had set down his own "rules for writers", in opposition to those of Orwell.

For a long time I had been allowing Orwell to fall in my estimation. He was too wrong about too many things. But reading Hart's critique of Orwell has obliged me to rediscover Orwell's merits.

Hart begins his "rules" with a conventional disclaimer:

To propose a list of rules for writers is probably a very presumptuous thing to do. The only authority it can possibly have is one’s own example, and so offering it to the world is something of a gamble. One has to assume that one’s own writing is impressive enough to most readers to provide one with the necessary credentials for the task.

Hart digs himself deeper into this hole by trying next to explain why Orwell's rules just will not do:

George Orwell was a perfectly competent (if rather boring) stylist; and yet his celebrated essay Politics And The English Language, which was intended as a rebuke of obscurantist jargon, endures now mostly as a manifesto of literary provincialism.

Cheap shots aside, I do not follow Hart's argument here. If he is saying of Orwell, "Boring stylist wrote tedious essay", this scarcely seems a point worth making.  

When I look again now at Orwell's rules in the light of Hart's critique, I think of H.L. Mencken's axiom: “There is a solution to every problem: simple, quick, and wrong”.

Orwell's rules are simple and quick. They are not absolutely wrong in themselves, but they are grossly inadequate.

Hart's rules are not simple and quick. They are complicated and time-consuming. They are also so impractical that their rightness or wrongness scarcely matters. They are far worse.

Here are a very few lines from Hart (his essay runs to 6,000 words):

Always use the word that most exactly means what you wish to say, in utter indifference to how common or familiar that word happens to be.
The exotic is usually more delightful than the familiar. Be kind to your readers and give them exotic things when you can. In general, life is rather boring, and a writer should try to mitigate that boredom rather than contribute to it.
Never squander an opportunity for verbal cleverness
Orwell decrees: “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.” No great writer in the history of any tongue has ever observed this rule, and no aspiring writer should follow it. The correct counsel would be “If a word is so excessive as to mar the effect of a sentence, remove it; but never remove a word simply because it is possible to do so”.

There is something to be said for each of Hart's claims, but not much. Re-reading that last citation from Orwell, by way of Hart ...

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

... I find myself agreeing so strongly with Orwell's principle that I want to cut a word even from the rule itself. Orwell's rule should read:

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

Perhaps even:

If you can cut a word, cut it.

And let others debate the meaning of "can".

In journalism many decades ago I learned, and learned to respect, an equivalent axiom ...

"When in doubt, cut it out"

... which was meant to encourage the deletion not merely of surplus words, but also of facts of uncertain provenance, of proper names which might have been mis-spelled, of descriptive passages of dubious relevance, of entire paragraphs, and sometimes of entire articles.

So perhaps, when Hart claims, in contradiction of Orwell's advice to cut words wherever possible, that "No great writer in the history of any tongue has ever observed this rule", he may have in mind novelists rather than journalists. But even then, his claim is ridiculous.

I doubt that any great work of literature has come into being, at least since the dawn of the novel, which was not at some earlier stage vigorously edited, and often vigorously truncated, usually by its author. The wordiest novel is often the most truncated.

Every novelist, as best I can tell, has always had too much to say. Every first draft comes in too long by a factor between two and ten. Drafts never come in too short. "Editing" means cutting the last draft down to size; it never means inflating the prose to fill excess space available.

Cutting out cuttable words is one of the easier and more rewarding parts of any writer's life. The more cuttable words you can cut from your manuscript, the more of your uncuttable words will survive into print. All writers, pace Hart, have respected this rule.

Orwell's six rules are perfectly sound rules for journalism. They may also be sound rules for speechwriting and for marketing. They are not, in my view, sound rules for literature. But since Orwell made no particular distinction between journalism and literature in his essay, doubtless he intended his rules to guide writers of all kinds.

Orwell's main aim in writing Politics And The English Language, the essay into which his rules were embedded, was to argue for a new definition of "good writing". Orwell wanted "good writing" to mean writing which

(i) Said something true, and
(ii) Did so in language that was clear to all readers.

Other writing — writing which was not clear, writing which failed to express a true message — was, almost by definition, the work of a bad writer, or of a woolly thinker, or of a deliberate propagandist.

It is a short hop from here to 1984, Orwell's great novel about a totalitarian England, which was published in 1949. The central invention of 1984 is an official language called "Newspeak", a version of the English language which has been reduced, by force of law, to a tiny vocabulary of approved words so bland and generic as scarcely to permit the imagining a dissenting opinion, let alone the expressing of it.    

A character in 1984 called Symes, who is said to be editing the 11th edition of the Newspeak Dictionary, explains the virtues of Newspeak to Winston Smith, the novel's hero, as follows:

If you have a word like ‘good’, what need is there for a word like ‘bad’? ‘Ungood’ will do just as well — better, because it’s an exact opposite, which the other is not. Or again, if you want a stronger version of ‘good’, what sense is there in having a whole string of vague useless words like ‘excellent’ and ‘splendid’ and all the rest of them? ‘Plusgood’ covers the meaning, or ‘doubleplusgood’ if you want something stronger still. Of course we use those forms already. but in the final version of Newspeak there’ll be nothing else. In the end the whole notion of goodness and badness will be covered by only six words — in reality, only one word.

Symes's argument is by no means absurd. It has attractions and precedents.

Similar claims were made by advocates of Esperanto, an entirely virtuous project to invent a European lingua franca in the late 19th century.

Similar principles were invoked by two Cambridge scholars, I.A. Richards and Charles Ogden, when they proposed in 1930 a simplified version of English, to be called "Basic English", which would use just 850 common words, and was designed to spread English as a global language.

As to the rest of Orwell's rules, I cannot see much harm in them.

Few people can tell the difference between active and passive moods, so there is not much to be gained from overthinking the use of these moods in literary fiction.

Aversion to the passive mood does, however, remain a healthy instinct in journalism. "Jones was hurt" contains much less information than "Smith hurt Jones". Newspapers should always tell us who to blame.

I might also agree with Orwell that short words are generally better than long ones, but I cannot easily say why this should be so. Perhaps it comes from some distantly imbibed inverse snobbery on both of our parts. In any case, Orwell's rule applies only where a short word and a long word are close-enough substitutes for one another, where one "will do" for the other, which is rarely the case. No two words are perfectly synonymous in all contexts and for all audiences.

As for Orwell's throw-away exit-line ...

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

... this is an ingratiating and essentially fraudulent appeal to the reader's or writer's supposed common sense. It suggests that one can follow Orwell's rules while still feeling in charge of one's own prose.

When he sat down to write 1984, on the Scottish island of Jura in 1946, Orwell had evidently reflected further on the nature of "good writing".

He had seen the nationalist propaganda of World Wars 1 & 2; he had watched a rising tide of ideological propaganda flood Europe since the Spanish Civil War; he had watched the rise of broadcast media and of broadcast advertising.

In 1984 he concluded and gave warning that simplicity of language was dangerous when taken to extremes. Life itself was complicated, and if we could not discuss Life in complicated terms, then we, like Winston Smith, were lost.

Ambiguity, imprecision, vagueness, repetition, jargon and digression are all figures and manners of speech which give speakers and writers places to hide, places to conceal their opinions and ideas without malice.

Orwell banished all such hiding-places from Newspeak. The permitted vocabulary of Newspeak allowed only for praise of Big Brother and for repetition of Big Brother's slogans. You can imagine Orwell's despair when he realised quite how easily this could be done.

All that said, I wonder whether Orwell 's experience of propaganda might possibly have left him with an exaggerated view of what propaganda could achieve, and with a distaste for propaganda which deterred him from any proper study of its inner workings.

He imagined in 1984 that people were best motivated by simple commands and physical force. They would obey any order that was repeated to them often enough in plain enough terms. Let me try to explain my hesitation about this model by citing a line from the American poet and novelist Paul Eldridge:

A man will die for an idea, provided the idea is not quite clear to him.

Now this is surely true. People around the world have shown their willingness over many centuries to die for a God, or for a nation, or for an ideal, all things in respect of which the mass of people might possess at best some very few fragments of fact or some vague impressions acquired by hearsay.

People have not, an other hand, generally shown a similar willingness to die for particular concrete things, and for things that they know well. They will not generally die to ensure the survival of their superiors at work, nor of the house in which they live, nor to perpetuate some actually existing civic virtue, such as cleanliness.

In the case of 1984 I do not for a moment believe that the citizens of Oceania would die willingly for Oceania merely because Oceania declared itself to be "doubleplusgood". Even the most totalitarian of states does well to provide some hidden place for romanticism within its ideology or within its regime. People need somewhere to place their irrational hopes.

In Russia the Orthodox Church provides this service. It purports to provide spiritual comfort to the government, and spiritual guarantees to the public at large, while being in most respects an undeclared arm of government itself.

In Britain, which is not a totalitarian state, the equivalent job goes to the Royal Family. The British monarchy gives religious and historical legitimacy to the government, while being in most respects an undeclared arm of government itself.

The sort of prose style which Orwell so deplored in his 1945 essay, and which Hart has defended in his 2023 essay, was first and most ably discussed by H. W. Fowler and F. G. Fowler, in The King's English (1906) under the rubric of "elegant variation", of which they say:

We include under this head all substitutions of one word for another for the sake of variety, and some miscellaneous examples. But we are chiefly concerned with what may be called pronominal variation, in which the word avoided is either a noun or its obvious pronoun substitute.  

Sub-editors on The Guardian newspaper have a term of their own for words and phrases introduced solely in pursuit of "elegant variation". These are called "povs", an acronym from "popular orange vegetable", referencing a long-lost and perhaps legendary piece of copy about the health-giving properties of carrots, the writer of which, having introduced carrots as "carrots" in paragraph one, felt obliged to open his second paragraph with the words: "The popular orange vegetable ..."  

H.W. Fowler returned to "elegant variation" in his Dictionary Of Modern English Usage (1926), mainly in order to warn still more strictly against it:

It is the second-rate writers, those intent rather on expressing themselves prettily than on conveying their meaning clearly, and still more those whose notions of style are based on a few misleading rules of thumb, that are chiefly open to the allurements of elegant variation.

Message received: Follow Fowler and avoid vulgarity. But I envy Fowler the presumption of hauteur from which he can deliver such a declaration. Who — save perhaps for Shakespeare and Homer, Sappho and Pushkin, Du Fu — would ever dream of claiming to be a first-rate writer? To be a second-rate writer, up there with Charlotte Bronte and Anthony Trollope, would be bliss indeed.

Snobbery aside, there is still some value in Fowler's scorn. Fowler warns that no writer who is admired primarily for "prettiness" in their own time is likely to be thought "first-rate" by later generations. Good advice. Keep your prose-style in check until you have first been admired for your wisdom. Oscar Wilde fell at this fence, a furlong short of greatness; and so, a century later, did Martin Amis.

Having got this far into an argument against the very principle of "rules for writers", how else can I exit, save by offering my own "rules for writers", if only to demonstrate the futility of such rules?

Describing, as a reader, the qualities which I seek out in a writer, I would couch my advice to writers as follows, and in descending order of importance:

(i) Be honest
(ii) Point to something in the world and talk about it
(iii) Have something memorable to say
(iv) Start well.

I could expand on these rules, but rules requiring expansion are not good rules in the first place.

There is nothing about prose-style in these rules, nor should there be. All style rules find their contradictions in Shakespeare.

At some levels and in some places there will be an audience for long words over short ones, old words over new ones, sadness over happiness, ramblings over brevity, experimental fiction over genre fiction, shock over decorum. There will be audiences for Samuel Beckett and Jane Austen, for Elmore Leonard and for Frozen, for Quentin Tarantino and for Muriel Spark, for David Brooks and for Amia Srinivasan.

There may be good and bad reasons to distinguish between such audiences, but I beg you to proceed gently when doing so. Because I myself am in all of them.


Join 150,000+ curious readers who grow with us every day

No spam. No nonsense. Unsubscribe anytime.

Great! Check your inbox and click the link to confirm your subscription
Please enter a valid email address!
You've successfully subscribed to The Browser
Welcome back! You've successfully signed in
Could not sign in! Login link expired. Click here to retry
Cookies must be enabled in your browser to sign in