Cottrell v Oliver
A weekly letter from the founding editor of The Browser. Correspondence and criticism gratefully received and always read: firstname.lastname@example.org
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Much of this letter looks forward to my planned argument in London next week with Henry Oliver, of the Common Reader, at City Lit, on 25th April. The writer and teacher Sarah Leipciger has kindly agreed to be our moderator. Henry and I will be arguing whether Orwell's Rules For Writers are good or bad. I say good, Henry say bad. A very few tickets — four, to be exact — remain, as I write. They are free, they are available at Eventbrite, and you will need the password rulesforwriters to access our Eventbrite page. Please take a ticket only if you are reasonably confident that you will attend.
Wondering what to expect from airport immigration when I go to America next month, I visited the Transport Security Administration's website yesterday and found that the TSA has "expanded its security focus" from searching bags into what it calls Identity Management:
A person centric approach is the positioning of processes around an individual’s identity. It uses the information provided by individuals to evaluate the risk they pose to the transportation enterprise, including secure spaces and information. TSA also prioritizes opportunities to scale existing person centric functions and introduce new elements of human-centered design to improve the customer experience.
Having also been re-reading George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four very recently, it occurs to me that Newspeak could compress the essentials of this paragraph into just two words:
If we wanted to represent the rationale of the TSA in more detail, we might add
... though the TSA might reasonably object that this was not quite what they meant.
I am not sure that much is lost this compression, and something may even be gained. But Newspeak is ugly and I do not want to live there.
If I try now to translate what I think the TSA is saying into what I think of as everyday English, I arrive at something like this:
"We want to know what people have done in the past, maybe even more than we want to know what they are doing at the airport right now".
Which, by the way, I think is a pretty good approach for the TSA to take.
The more I think about my argument with Henry next week, the more I appreciate the virtues of plain English.
I have been looking again at George Orwell's rules for writers, and comparing them with other rules on offer in what turns out to be quite a crowded market. I have been reading Strunk and White, H.W. Fowler, Ernest Gowers and Kurt Vonnegut. They all propose rules which resemble those of Orwell, if often less concisely expressed. Be short, be simple, be concrete. You know the stuff.
The Guardian has a whole series on writers' rules contributed by Zadie Smith, Margaret Atwood and others. Many of these rules are about writing habits rather than writing styles, but here are a few of my favourites:
Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can't sharpen it on the plane, because you can't take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils — Margaret Atwood
Write a book you'd like to read. If you wouldn't read it, why would anybody else? — Hilary Mantel
Leave a decent space of time between writing something and editing it — Zadie Smith
Remember how much time people spend watching TV. If you're writing a novel with a contemporary setting there need to be long passages where nothing happens save for TV watching — Will Self
My minimum is 1,000 words a day. Those 1,000 words might well be rubbish – they often are. But it is always easier to return to rubbish words at a later date and make them better — Sarah Waters
If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it — Elmore Leonard
But of all the writers canvassed by The Guardian, not one of them recommends difficulty, digression, self-indulgence or complexity as a writing strategy. Which is, for my purposes, a bit of a problem. If I am to argue for plain English, what am I supposed to rebutting? Where are the rules with which I disagree, the rules in praise of wordy and difficult writing, the new arguments in need of new rebuttals?
Ideally, I need a copy of the TSA Stylebook.
As the next best thing, I keep close the essay by David Bentley Hart which got me thinking about all this in the first place. It is a gift which never stops giving. There is a misdirection in every line. Take this one: "Never squander an opportunity for verbal cleverness". If I were ever obliged to try explaining the distinction between cleverness and wisdom, I would start with that sentence.
I have also been re-reading Henry's defence of Hart, in which Henry says:
In this world where all prose must be staccato to be considered readable, I was glad to find someone prepared to say so much against Orwell and the nasty trend he helped embed in ordinary English.
It is not ordinary but extraordinary English which bothers me. But I can argue this out with Henry on the evening.
To these foundational texts I can now add an essay in last week's Literary Hub by Ed Simon (whose writing I know mainly from The Millions; and do look in on his Belt Magazine, a splendid publication based in Pittsburgh), who makes this seductive claim:
When Orwell says that we must always cut a word out, when Zinsser says that we must strip the sentence and valorize function above all else, when Strunk and White demand that all words must be necessary, they are making a philosophical argument about what matters and what doesn’t.
For the authors of such style guides, good composition is an exercise in the literal, the straightforward, the utilitarian. Certainly, there are some forms of writing for which that’s nothing but good advice, but taken to the extreme of dictate handed down from Sinai, it eliminates much of which is lush and fecund in long sentences, what is ecstatic, incantatory, and sublime about literature.
My first thought when reading this was a relatively trivial one: Could William Zinsser ever have said, "we must strip the sentence and valorize function", or anything nearly so ugly? Google says not. (Try the search yourself, even without quotes). I am going to go with Google on this.
My second thought was that, thanks to Ed's essay, I believe I now understand the argument for what Ed calls "incantatory and sublime" writing more clearly than I did when reading David Bentley Hart alone, and I hope you will not think me unfair if I summarise the argument as follows:
I am a writer. I am a writer because I think my writing is good. If my writing is good, then more of my writing must be better; and more of my writing in my own distinctive style must be better still.
This logic holds good if one is Shakespeare, and even if one is James Joyce. It starts to fall away at the level of George Bernard Shaw. But if it encourages merely competent writers, such as myself, to think ourselves capable of writing "sublime" prose, then we fall victim to the Dunning-Kruger effect, which holds that "people with low ability, expertise, or experience regarding a certain type of task or area of knowledge tend to overestimate their ability or knowledge".
I know that sounds a bit rich coming from me, a person with no track record to speak of in writing books, so here is Sarah Waters saying much the same thing:
Without "overwritten" prose, we would have none of the linguistic exuberance of a Dickens or an Angela Carter. If everyone was economical with their characters, there would be no Wolf Hall . . . For the rest of us, however, rules remain important. And, crucially, only by understanding what they're for and how they work can you begin to experiment with breaking them.
However weak the arguments in favour of convoluted writing, I still want to rest my case for simple writing on something more enduring than personal preference or current fashion. And I want to get beyond the circular argument which holds that simple writing is good because good writing is simple. This argument can easily be refuted by citing good writing which is not simple; the King James Bible, for example.
So, what if we agree that life, whether long or short, is doled out to each of us in a finite quantity?
It does not necessarily follow that we are obliged to make good use of such time as we have. But most of us hope to make good use of such time as we have.
A preference for brevity and for clarity emerges fairly naturally from this, at least in conditions of uncertainty. Even if I arrive at a decision that the best use of my time is to read an almost incomprehensible book such as Finnegans Wake, I will want to have arrived at that decision thanks to information that I was able to digest easily and efficiently along with information about other potential pastimes.
Dear reader, you may have decided once and for all upon your ideal. You may want to read and re-read the works of Shakespeare. You may want to listen to the symphonies of Beethoven. Nobody would call these works simple, nor is brevity their selling-point, yet they are among the greatest achievements in human history, and they are generally agreed to reward life-long devotion.
For myself, I am stuck at the search and discovery stage. I have not yet found perfect happiness. I want to try out more things. I want to cast my net widely. I am not going to read something that I do not understand at all. I am not going to read much of something that I find hard to understand unless I have reason to think that doing so is worth the effort.
I am describing here mainly what you might call the recreational part of my life — books, music, films, theatre, food, conversation. As for the functional part of my life, the stuff I consume out of necessity and inertia, ranging from signs in airports to front-page articles in the New York Times, clarity and brevity are primary virtues exceeded only by truth. A good newspaper article is one that I can abandon at any time and still have most of the story in my head, because the key points will have been up there in the first sentence, and preferably in the headline.
I admire Orwell's rules for writers. I admire Orwell's invention of Newspeak. But I can see good reason for rejecting Orwell's rules for writers, if one believes that following his rules will put writers on a slippery slope towards Newspeak, by obliging them to eliminate the digressions and ambiguities and obscurities with which they conceal what they think and, often, what they do not know.
The error here is in taking Newspeak seriously. Even in Nineteen Eighty-Four nobody actually converses in Newspeak. Newspeak is an idea, a language under construction. Orwell provides an appendix to his novel in which he explains how it is meant to work. Our sole extended glimpse of Newspeak in action within Nineteen Eighty-Four comes when a Party member sends a telegram which reads:
Items one comma five comma seven approved fullwise stop suggestion contained item six doubleplus ridiculous verging crimethink cancel stop unproceed constructionwise antegetting plusfull estimates machinery overheads stop end message.
There are also some fragments of Newspeak visible in the instructions which Winston Smith receives at his place of work, the Ministry Of Truth:
times 3.12.8 reporting bb dayorder doubleplusungood refs
unpersons rewrite fullwise upsub antefiling
The funny thing is, apart from some oddities of vocabulary, that telegram is exactly how telegrams were often written in Orwell's day, when telegram companies charged by the word.
And, having been on the receiving end of many telegraphed instructions in my early work as a journalist, I can greet the order "rewrite fullwise upsub antefiling" almost as an old friend. It tells me that I need to rewrite the given piece in its entirety, then sub-edit my own copy diligently, and then file it to the editor of the day. (I would be wrong on one point if I was working at the Ministry Of Truth; there, "upsub" means "submit it to higher authority", not "give it a good sub-edit".)
The ugliness of Newspeak is merely a by-product. The main point of Newspeak is to make some things unsayable, and thus unthinkable, by having no words for them.
It was widely believed in the 1940s, when Orwell was writing Nineteen Eighty-Four, that a person's capacity for thought was determined by their capacity for language. If you spoke a different language, you would think in a different way and you would experience the world in a different way. The shorthand term for this belief was "linguistic relativity", or the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, and it drew heavily on ideas developed separately by the linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf.
I see Orwell's Newspeak as a thought-experiment in extreme linguistic relativity — no word > no concept > no problem. I doubt that Orwell believed that such a thing could actually be imposed across a society, but he certainly saw the dramatic value of raising it as a threat. His Appendix to Nineteen Eighty-Four on The Principles Of Newspeak reads to me as satire, or at least as a game with the reader, rather like T.S. Eliot's footnotes to The Wasteland.
In any case, few linguists still believe in any strong form of linguistic relativity. Try finding anybody now who believes we would have no wars if we had no word for "war". It seems far more probable that we have the word "war" because we have wars and we need to talk about them.
Yes, there is a touch of Newspeak in Russia's denial that its war in Ukraine is a war. But the invented Russian term, "special military operation", is a shibboleth, a loyalty test. It does not replace "war" in anybody's mind or vocabulary. Rather, it formalises an additional idea, an additional term, representing a war which cannot be called a war.
Orwell's rules would require us to call a war a war, a spade a spade, etc. Can too much plainness of this kind be bad for our language? Henry will speak to this on Tuesday, but I am far more worried about the opposite drift, into vagueness and abstraction, which seems to be going on all around me. I began with a paragraph from the TSA, but the British are just as equal to the task. Here is part of the job specification for a "Continuous Improvement Consultant" now being sought by a British goverment department:
You'll lead and deliver complex change and improvement projects that result in better processes, outcomes and value for DDTS and our customers. In addition to leading projects, you'll be helping to achieve the team's strategic priorities of growing continuous improvement capability and culture whilst embedding best working practices.
Our team use structured, evidence based continuous improvement methodologies including lean, six-sigma and systems thinking to deliver our improvements. We are part of the Change Awareness and Adoption team, which reports to the DDTS Chief Operating Officer.
Do you have any idea, based on this description, what the Continuous Improvement Consultant actually does all day? Obviously they are supposed to improve things, or improve the way that things are improved — but what things? There is nothing here which seems to have any concrete form, save perhaps for the "DDTS Chief Operating Officer", whom I imagine to be a person in their forties with an office and an air of authority.
Older generations of pedants used to get quite angry about "jargon", by which they meant technical terms and terms of art imported from particular professions and fields of study. They talked as though language was a commons under their stewardship, and the jargoneers were vandalising it.
I don't feel that way myself, perhaps thanks to the Internet. When I see jargon that I don't recognise I can go to Wikipedia and learn something. Looking up "six sigma" in Wikipedia tells me that the term is derived from statistical science and was popularised by American corporations fifty years ago as a way of saying that they had come to see value in making greater efforts to minimise defects in their products.
It is more the drift towards baroque abstraction which worries me. Words seem more negotiable than they used to be. People who used to sell clothes or show films now say they "deliver experiences" and nobody turns a hair. Words and ideas which might give offence are replaced with circumlocutions or omitted entirely — a practice which may well increase the sum of human happiness, but which frustrates my desire to know what is going on. Organisations which have always had private jargon now use that jargon in preference to everyday speech when addressing the public, and I cannot tell whether they do so because they believe the result is more precise, or because they know the result is more obscure.
Foolishly or not, I feel insecure, even frightened, when the language used in the world around me diverges ever further from the language that I use myself. I do not want to be kept in a state of increasing bafflement, even with good reason.
So when I shall meet Henry next week, I shall approach him as a supplicant, pleading for plain English to be maintained. If Henry points out that every great writer breaks all of Orwell's rules all the time, I shall plead that Orwell's rules are meant as a floor, not a ceiling. I hope above all that we shall not bore our audience, and I hope that if some disagreements remain between us at the end of our argument, we will both consider the disagreements to be reasonable ones.