I recently saw a video of noob trapeze artists undergoing training. It’s not a particularly impressive sight.
Aside from their rigorous workout regimen which they maintain daily, they practice routines while harnessed with safety lines and swing above a safety net at all times. It’s not fancy but it is a necessary step on the path to wowing crowds with their death defying feats some day.
Writing is sort of the same.
While writing, like most artistic endeavours, can not be regulated, there are rules to this thing. Those rules ensure you don’t commit literary suicide on the pages of a blog or book. They also help you gain a footing since having literally millions of words available to you is a recipe for disaster.
George Orwell’s 6 Rules of Writing
When I was starting out, George Orwell’s 6 Writing rules was my first introduction to the world of writing well. So it is only fitting that I start this tutorial series revisiting them.
George Orwell’s 6 rules were the rails on which I built my style. No passive sentences, no clichés, no jargon, they all helped me quickly settle into a rhythm for what good writing should look and sound like.
I hope they help you too.
Rule 1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print*
*Replace print with wherever you currently get your news
When writing, writers scramble to capture and convey their thoughts with the best words. Unfortunately, we are predisposed to take the easy way out which means, we’ll use the first word or phrase that our mind conjures. Due to years of reading and consuming media, our minds are accustomed with clichés. That’s because they are easy and memorable.
But clichés are your enemy.
Regardless of which language you’re writing in, there are
a hundred and one quite a few phrases that have been used to death overused. Avoid these like the plague as much as you can. Truth be told, you can’t totally eliminate them but by drawing your attention to the effect they have on your writing, (it makes it weaker not stronger), this is a very needful first rule. It also encourages you to try harder to avoid them and reduce their frequency.
Seriously, aren’t you tired of seeing things like, bury the hatchet, an ax to grind, viz a viz, out of the blue, a can of worms, armed to the teeth, easy as ABC, beat around the bush and so on?
These phrases are functional but forgettable. Most times, when you encounter such phrases in other people’s writing, your brain sort of hibernates cos it’s familiar and therefore boring. As a writer, using clichés makes you mentally lazy and also weakens your writing.
The next time you’re writing and your mind offers you clichés as the easy way out, turn it down and send it back to think up something more creative.
Rule 2. Never use a long word where a short one will do
A better way to write this is, never use a complex or long word when a short and simpler one will do the same job, sometimes even better.
This is Patrick Obahiagbon, former member of the House of Reps 2007 – 2011 and a legal practitioner.
But you wouldn’t know that if you Googled him. From the search results, you’d think he was a circus act or a comedian. Nobody takes him seriously, even when he’s making a lot of sense. Why? That’s because he speaks using the most advanced and complex words in the English dictionary.
It’s worse when you’re a writer. Using big, long, or complex words will produce the wrong results, turning off your readers and making you sound conceited.
Academics suffer the most from this. It is as though they are expected to sound complicated when the purpose of academia is to make knowledge accessible and understandable for as many people as possible. Ironically, I’ve also found that the ones who can bridge that gap – who can talk to their fellow academics as well as regular people like us, in clear and easy ways – end up breaking boundaries in their fields and crossing over into the mainstream.
The joy of writing is being able to convey your ideas clearly and skillfully. Using big flashy words impresses nobody. Complex and long words are not necessarily smarter. They are definitely tougher to read and understand. So, if there is a simpler, shorter word, use that instead.
Rule 3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out
I’ve talked quite a bit on self editing in past posts.
If you plan to go the long mile in this writing thing, one thing you must constantly do is, self edit. Or as Stephen King puts it, kill your darlings!
That’s right. Just because you wrote it and you liked it doesn’t mean it must make it into the final draft. Nope, there’s no such rule.
The rule is, if the sentence/paragraph will still make sense without the part under scrutiny, then edit it out. The more words we use to make a point, the less diluted its power is.
Be like Ernest Hemingway who allegedly wrote a short story in 6 simple words, For Sale: baby shoes, never used.
It takes skill to do something like that. Heck, I want to do something like that! That’s something we all should aspire to.
As you age as a writer, your aim should be figuring out ways to use less to tell more.
Rule 4. Never use the passive where you can use the active
Which one sounds better?
“The ball was kicked by Adam” vs “Adam kicked the ball”
I’m guessing you picked the second one. That’s because it uses the active voice rather than passive.
The active voice is powerful because it grants the subject matter urgency and oomph! This rule is frequently broken by (you guessed right) academics. Seriously, have you tried to read a research journal? It’s like an exercise in longsuffering. I have a theory for why academic writing is usually that way but it’s still a working theory.
It’s not only academics though. A lot of writers do this especially, mostly because we are scared of being assertive.
Anyway, active voice >>> passive voice.
Rule 5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
Rule 5 is similar to rule 2.
If you are a non fiction writer like me, this is a tricky rule. But it’s still valid.
Over the course of your career, you’ll realise that the whole purpose of the written form is to aid understanding. When your writing is pleasing to read, it is more memorable and your ideas become sticky, gaining wide readership.
A lot of non fiction writing is usually technical knowledge targeted at other people within an industry. Hence the use of jargon. But research has shown that, just because you have a secondary school education, doesn’t mean you can read at that level. The average reader’s sweet spot is the 9th grade reading level (4th year of grammar school if you are in the UK, SS1 if you are Nigerian).
Yes, you read that correctly. Most of us have our reading ability hovering around the same stage it was when we were still in high school. This is why most of the bestsellers write at this level.
That’s the sweet spot. If you want your work to gain the maximum audience it can, you have to dumb it down and make it simple enough for a 9th grader, even if you are a professor.
I try to run my articles through the readability website to see if I’m within the sweet spot. Quick note: This article is optimized for a 7th grader!
Rule 6. Break any of these rules sooner than saying anything outright barbarous.
I like how George Orwell makes the last rule a disclaimer. It gives back agency and control to the writer, ensuring that he still goes into the writing project with his brain working, rather than just ticking boxes on a checklist.
When you write, everything you do is in service to the reader as well as the integrity of your ideas and thoughts. If obeying any of these rules will end up defeating these two things, damn the rules!
Since I started writing professionally, I’ve followed these rules religiously. I still do, even though I broke them a few times writing this.
Writing is not easy but it is worth the effort of learning, practicing and getting better at. At the end of it all (another cliché!), what matters is that you put in the effort. I do hope these rules will give you the boost you need to producing better writing.
See you next week.