George Orwell can hardly be named the founding father of modern content writing. Nevertheless, his ideas about language and communication are still relevant today. Especially for content writers.
Let’s look at Orwell’s small (and certainly less famous than“1984” and “Animal Farm”) essay called “Politics and the English Language.” I bet you’ve never read this one. Well, it’s about time! Because this essay is all tips and tricks on how to write clearly - something many content writers could use.
English is full of bad habits. The language has become ugly and inaccurate. We constantly witness “the abuse of language.”
Those who want to rip their shirts off and scream “Blasphemy!” please, keep quiet and bear with me. The explanations will follow.
Two qualities are to blame for the ugliness: the first is staleness of imagery; the other is lack of precision.
Let’s put a beautiful Orwell’s quote here:
“The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not. This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of...”
content writing, for sure!
Cause let’s be honest, aren’t those the same mistakes you can find in modern articles and website pages? Meaningless words piled up together, the vagueness of the point - two deadly sins of content writers in a single place.
Fortunately, “the decadence of our language is probably curable.”
What you shouldn’t use in prose (aka the “catalogue of swindles and perversions”):
- Dying metaphors. Worn-out metaphors, such as ‘fishing in troubled waters,’ ‘on the order of the day,’ ‘Achilles' heel,’ ‘swan song.’ Also, never use metaphors if you don’t understand their meaning.
- Operators or verbal false limbs. Such as ‘render inoperative,’ ‘militate against,’ ‘prove unacceptable,’ ‘make contact with,’ ‘be subjected to,’ ‘give rise to.’ Better use single verbs where possible. Favor gerunds over noun constructions. And no passive voice, for goodness’ sake!
- Pretentious diction. Words like ‘phenomenon,’ ‘element,’ ‘individual’ (as a noun), ‘objective,’ ‘categorical,’ ‘effective,’ ‘virtual,’ ‘basis,’ ‘primary,’ ‘promote,’ ‘constitute,’ ‘exhibit,’ ‘exploit,’ ‘utilize,’ ‘eliminate,’ ‘liquidate.’ Adjectives like ‘epoch−making,’ ‘epic,’ ‘historic,’ ‘unforgettable,’ ‘triumphant,’ ‘age−old,’ ‘inevitable.’ Foreign words such as ‘cul de sac,’ ‘deus ex machina,’ ‘mutatis mutandis,’ ‘status quo.’
- Meaningless words. Say NO to long meaningless passages!
Good writers constantly ask themselves the following questions:
- 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?
- Could I put it more shortly?
- Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?
Orwell’s rules of writing are:
- 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 barbarous.
Although George Orwell wrote the essay mainly about the vagueness of political writing, his advice works well for web content writing too. Every now and then, you’ll find bad pieces of content composed of ready-made meaningless phrases. And whenever you try to read them and grasp the meaning, you fail. Well, now you know it’s not your fault as a reader; it’s the writer’s “abuse of language.”
So, print out Mr. Orwell’s rules, hang them above your desk, and pay them a visit whenever you write or edit. The web is already full of ugly content, just the way the printed press was a century ago. Don’t spread the disease!
By Anna Kovalova, senior content writer at Raccoon Writing.