In a tiny bookshop in Grasmere, England, I discovered a tiny book that both guided and confirmed my skills as a writer… But it also shocked me that there is still so much shoddy, clunky, mismatched content being published in 2019 when the advice within this wee book was PUBLISHED AND AVAILABLE 70 years ago! Yes, I'm talking to you pension, finance, legal, educational, medical contenty people – time to sort your jargonese out.
The book I found hiding between two bigger, buffer books was published back in the summer of 1946 – following the war – and it's pocked with bold guidance from its author on how to write well with sharp, smart tips that can be applied today.
The little book is actually an essay, 'How To Write Well', by the prophetic mind of George Orwell (or Eric Blair). When I first read the publish date – 1946 – I couldn't believe how relevant the references to writing styles were for the digital age.
Now I don't know about you – but I studied creative writing for three years across two hemispheres at two reputable instituitons and I had NEVER heard of this essay before my visit to this British bookshop. I had never been recommended to read it either, it never showed up on university reading lists, and yet it is a wonderfully succinct script for future copywriters, content writers, editors and marketers to follow in their work, when “instinct fails”.
A script for applying your writing skills practically!
The advice contained within just a few pages is so simple. So... purely common sense. And it's timeless.
There are specific sections in the essay that I strongly believe should be printed and framed on the wall of every office, studio, agency, or school responsible for producing and curating words! I've got it on my to-doodle list.
'How To Write Well' is perfect for any writer/editor dedicated enough to reviewing every sentence they write. Orwell suggests a simple list of questions to ask when drafting:
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?
Orwell also adds to this list two more vital questions for the editor within:
Could I put it more shortly?
Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?
As a copyeditor, I am always on the hunt for the “ugly”
As a copyeditor, I am essentially always on the hunt for the “ugly” in a paragraph, to pluck it out or give it a makeover. This should not be confused with removing ugly images, characters or ideas though (they can have value). It’s a great skill/curse of a writer to look at words entirely separate from their meaning on the page – like black shapes scattered on a canvas with the goal to create an artwork out of however you think is best to arrange them.
Orwell even picks up on that habit:
“Let the meaning choose the word – and not the other way around.”
The most amazing thing about this essay, is that Orwell sat down and wrote these words during a time when computers, websites, smart phones, social media and even the concept of creative copywriting didn't exist. Just like his premonitory novel 1984, this author has creepily spelled out what should be common knowledge for communicators...
Writers, editors, publishers, journalists, reporters, social media managers, politicians, students of the word, digital marketers, digital nomads, PR agents, small business owners, startups, pensions employees... all these professionals and many more can clue themselves up on George's 70-year-old advice to sharpen their work today.
If you can't bother reading the essay, here are Orwell's general rules for writing well that you can print, frame and follow to make the world a better place:
Orwell’s General Rules for Writing:
Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print [or web]
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 any everyday English equivalent
Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
You can also find the entire essay published by Penguin here, or why not hunt for it in tiny bookshops like I did?