George Orwell is one of my favourite writers. If you, like me, originally studied English as a second language, you probably encountered his book “Animal Farm” at least once during your studies, and probably more than once. It’s just one of those books that foreign students of English seem to stumble over in the curriculum on a regular basis.
And why not? In my opinion, it’s one of the best books about society, politics, and human nature ever written. It is unflinching as it shows us exactly why revolutions, even those that occur for very good reasons, seldom lead to the kind of paradise and freedom (some of) the instigators originally hoped for.
I pretty much love every single book Orwell ever wrote. I love his sparse, beautifully put together style, and the simplicity with which he tells his tales. 1984 is a classic, of course, but his essays are fantastic as well. Just pick up any collection of his essays and read away!
Orwell also had some excellent, practical advice for writers. I’ve read a lot of different writing tips over the years, but Orwell’s advice is what has always stayed with me. You might have seen it before on the internet or elsewhere, but it’s good enough to keep repeating it. From George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language”:
A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus:
- What am I trying to say?
- What words will express it?
- What image or idiom will make it clearer?
- Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?
And he will probably ask himself two more:
- Could I put it more shortly?
- Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?
One can often be in doubt about the effect of a word or a phrase, and one needs rules that one can rely on when instinct fails. I think the following rules will cover most cases:
- Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.