If you want to be understood and have your ideas spread, then your language should be as effective as possible. This is not a recent problem at all, and as George Orwell wrote in his 1946 essay, Politics and the English Language, this condition is curable. By following George Orwell’s 5 rules for effective writing, you can communicate your ideas as clearly as possible.
- Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figures of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
This might sound easy, but it is easier said than done. Phrases such as stand shoulder to shoulder with, an axe to grind, swan song feel comforting and melodic.
This is the reason why they must be avoided. Such common phrases have become so comfortable to the point that they cause no emotional response. Try to invent fresh and powerful images.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
Using long words doesn’t make you sound intelligent unless they are used skillfully. However, if used in the wrong situation, they’ll have quite the opposite effect.
When Faulkner criticized Hemingway for his use of limited word choice, he got the following reply:
“Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use”.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
Any words that don’t add meaning to a passage dilute its power. In this case, less is always better.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
This is one of the mistakes that are made more often, probably because not many people know the difference between active and passive verbs. Here is an example that can clear the things a bit:
The girl was bitten by the snake. (passive) The snake bit the girl. (active).
The active sentence is always better because it’s shorter and more energetic.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
This is a tricky one because much of the writing published online is highly technical. You don’t want to continue with an unnecessary explanation, but always try to help your readers understand what your writing is about.
Break any of these rules sooner than saying anything outright barbarous.
In the end, it’s all about using common sense when writing. It is easy to memorize these rules, but it is not that easy to apply them. Good writing matters probably more than you think.
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There is no doubt that one of the greatest American writers was Kurt Vonnegut, and at the same time, he is one of the greatest writing teachers. Want to learn how to write like him? Check out his own words listed as Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Basics of Creative Writing.
Find a subject you care about
“Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, and not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.”
Do not ramble, though
“I won’t ramble on about that.”
Keep it simple
“As for your use of language: Remember that two great masters of language, William Shakespeare and James Joyce, wrote sentences which were almost childlike when their subjects were most profound. ‘To be or not to be?’ asks Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The longest word is three letters long…Simplicity of language is not only reputable, but perhaps even sacred. The Bible opens with a sentence well within the writing skills of a lively fourteen-year-old: ‘In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.”
Have the guts to cut
“Your rule might be this: If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.”
Sound like yourself
“The writing style which is most natural for you is bound to echo the speech you heard when a child…I myself find that I trust my own writing most, and others seem to trust it most, too, when I sound most like a person from Indianapolis, which is what I am.”
Say what you mean to say
“If I broke all the rules of punctuation, had words mean whatever I wanted them to mean, and strung them together higgledy-piggledy, I would simply not be understood. So you, too, had better avoid Picasso-style or jazz-style writing, if you have something worth saying and wish to be understood. Readers want our pages to look very much like pages they have seen before. Why? This is because they themselves have a tough job to do, and they need all the help they can get from us.”
Pity the reader
“They have to identify thousands of little marks on paper, and make sense of them immediately…So this discussion must finally acknowledge that our stylistic options as writers are neither numerous nor glamorous, since our readers are bound to be such imperfect artists. Our audience requires us to be sympathetic and patient teachers, ever willing to simplify and clarify — whereas we would rather soar high above the crowd, singing like nightingales.”
For really detailed advice
“For a discussion of literary style in a narrower sense, in a more technical sense, I commend to your attention The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr., and E.B. White (Macmillan, 1979). E.B. White is, of course, one of the most admirable literary stylists this country has so far produced..”
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