Improve Your Writing With George Orwell’s 6 Rules of Writing Well

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.

wp-image-78475410

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!

In Conclusion

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.

Header Photo by rawpixel.com on Unsplash

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How I Crushed My Biggest Writing Project to Date


So I began this ghostwriting project for a client early January this year. It was a real growing experience for me. For one, it was the first time I would handle a book of that magnitude, both in terms of subject matter as well as calibre of client.

The client was a part of the previous political regime and the book focused on policy, youth development and the African narrative. It was a big picture book, with a lot of new terms and concepts, a lot of history, a lot of case studies.

I began talks with his team in early January. A week or so after I had taken the job and contracts had been signed, the man dropped a big bomb on me:

He told me he’s been trying to write this book since 2012. And somehow the project always falls apart.

Yeah, that did wonders for my self confidence. 

Anyways, I prayed asking God to make me a solution to this man’s problem. Rather than become another statistic, another failed attempt to write this book, let me be the one to take the project across the finish line.

It wasn’t easy. Sometimes I’d glance at the interview logs I had done, the notes I had taken (enough to fill 2 notepads), and then the blank pages in front of me waiting to be filled.

It often felt like I had bitten off more than I could chew.

After several false starts and four sleepless months, several back and forths with the editors, FINALLY, the book launched on October 2, 2017!

It was a really emotional experience for me seeing the book in my client’s hand.

I felt like a surrogate mom and a midwife at the same time.

I guess ghostwriting is a bit of both.

I’m still reeling from the euphoria! And I’m eager for even bigger challenges .

The last thing I’ll say is, my writing tutors were right – there’s no project that can’t be crushed. It may take time, but Goliaths will fall if you keep lobbing stones at them.

I guess I’m writing this as a reminder to myself, and to all of us who face frequent episodes of self doubt – Keep going.

Why Spotlight is my best film of 2015, (it’s more than just the Oscar win)

Spotlight Investigative Team

When Spotlight first came out last year, I remember seeing it on the cinema schedule and glossing it over, never giving it a second thought. Till then, I’d never seen or heard any marketing for the movie. And the synopsis just didn’t pull me in.

It showed up again on my radar about three weeks before the Oscars, when I checked out the 2015 AFI list and saw Spotlight there at number eight. I still felt reluctant to watch it. The poster, the synopsis, everything about the movie felt uneventful. Not even its Rotten Tomatoes score got me to watch it.

And so, I’m probably like a lot of people, because I finally committed the two hours to see the movie because of its Best Picture win.

And I’m happy I did.

Just to be clear, Spotlight is a very “uneventful” movie. There are no fisticuffs, no explosions, no gunshots, no fights; there was just one heated argument in the entire movie. And yet, this movie is probably the most important movie I’ve seen in recent memory. And here’s why:

I’m a trained media writer. A decade ago, I’d easily identify as a journalist. But media fragmentation, and poor treatment of journalists in Nigeria has made me diversify my job pool. Nowadays, I tackle projects on the “book writing and freelance” side of things, while masquerading as a Technology Editor during the day. But deep down in my heart, I’m in love with reporting a well researched story. And Spotlight reminds me of why I always will.

The movie is based on true events, about how The Boston Globe’s investigative department uncovered a series of child abuses cases and the systemic cover-ups that had been going on for decades. Like I said, the synopsis doesn’t really do it any favours. But there’s a reason the Academy thinks it’s 2015’s Best Picture.

Spotlight tells a true life story about child sexual abuse, without adding gratuitous shock value and without the “usual” Hollywood pizzazz, which is an achievement in itself. By the time the second act gets underway, you’re completely invested in the characters. And the story they are trying to break.

I’m happy this movie got the recognition it deserved. Spotlight is a reminder of why real journalism is important. The internet seems to have forced newsrooms to become PR annexes, what with all the fluff pieces and shallow reporting going on today.

Another thing that stood out about the movie was the underlying message it delivered. There’s this profound scene at the end of its first act. Martin Baron (played by Liev Schreiber), is the new Boston GLobe editor who just got hired and is responsible for reopening the story. He’s kind of doing the rounds, establishing lines of communication with the church on the almost forgotten sexual abuse claims. Len Cariou, plays Cardinal Law, the then Archbishop of Boston who came under fire for his inactions and the dismissive way he handled the recurrent abuse cases. With that context, here’s the conversation that ensued between the two men at their first meeting:

Cardinal Law: If I can be of any help, Marty, don’t hesitate to ask. I find that the city flourishes when its great institutions work together.

Marty Baron: Thank you. Personally I’m of the opinion that for a paper to best perform its function, it really needs to stand alone.

Boom!

For a paper to do its job, for it to maintain its true essence and not become a glorified partisan weapon, it needs to stand alone. This statement is particularly poignant for a country like Nigeria where media houses seem to be an extension of partisan political strategy. There’s no subtlety in the way politicians are wielding their individual media houses as tools to tear into their opposition.

Anyway, this is not about Nigerian politics. This is about investigative journalism and its role in society. Publishers and Editors are cutting back on investigative resources as readership continues to dwindle. The current newspaper model doesn’t seem to support channeling extensive resources into stories that would take longer than an hour, maybe two to report. The Spotlight team consisting of four people initially, took five months to meticulously research, interview and collate information on the story before a single story was published. In today’s twitter/snapchat world, that’s too long.

Perhaps it’s time more resources were comitted to telling truly important stories.

Oh by the way, at the end of the movie, there was a list of places where instances of child abuse by catholic clergymen were uncovered. And guess what? Akute, Nigeria was on the list. That’s right. A seemingly routine editor’s meeting in 2001 in a Boston Globe newsroom kicked off an investigation on a story whose domino effect uncovered several instances of child abuse all the way in Nigeria.

That’s what good investigative journalism can do. Think about that.

Celebrating Books

 

“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is my belief.” – Franz Kafka

How to Get more Nigerians to read

literary vs genre

There’s a not-going-to-end-anytime-soon debate about what is literary and what isn’t. It’s probably been going on long before I was in diapers. Before getting your hopes up, this isn’t the post where I weigh in on the issue; I’m ill-equipped as at now to bring anything new to the discussion. Give me a few more years, a few bestsellers and more industry cred.

But what I want to rant about discuss here is the paradoxical blackhole we seem to have encountered in the Nigerian publishing industry. And we’re stuck in it’s gravitational pull.

It’s not news that I’m passionate about reading. I love it. I could spend all day reading (I actually do). So it was only a matter of time before I noticed the paradox we’re in. And yes, it has to do with sales.

By definition, genre fiction is a better cash-cow than literary fiction the world over. Most genre fiction is written with the aim of appealing to lovers and readers of that specific genre. They hit all the right plot beats, meet certain expectations in terms of character interactions, protagonist’s personality etc. That’s why it’s easier to run into a reader who reads only romance or science fiction or high fantasy or legal thrillers or (insert category). Yes, literary works have a near monopoly on the big international awards but genre fiction has a generic trait – they are popular(some people even call it popular fiction).

Except in Nigeria. It would be wrong to call genre fiction popular because it isn’t. At least, when compared with literary fiction. Seriously, when last did a Nigerian book or author make the evening news? Or even front page of the dailies? Or any paper for that matter? If they did, was the author going by the name Chimamanda Adichie, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka or Sefi Atta (who are all literary authors by the way)?

I think the question we should be asking ourselves is – Can literary fiction be the catalyst to inspire a reading revolution/renaissance in Nigeria? People talk about the decline in reading habits, which is a reflection of the publishing industry in Nigeria. But who can blame the publishers? Publishing, first and foremost, is a business. And businesses obey the law of supply and demand. Right now, the demand for literary works exceeds that of genre fiction by miles.

This situation is irregular and counterintuitive but what is it about Africa (especially Nigeria) that is intuitive and regular? Let me quote something I read in Africa Business Magazine some time ago that stuck with me

In Africa, we have everything we need to create vast wealth for our people. You want copper, Zambia has plenty; you want oil, go to half a dozen countries; you want gas, gold, iron, platinum, diamonds, coal, timber, phosphates, sand, soda, coffee, cocoa, cotton, tea – anything – and your neighbor has plenty of it. You want land to grow things on? Africa has more arable land than any other continent and more variety of climate for a greater variety of products. It has the world’s biggest fishing grounds and more grazing land in a few countries than all the rest of the world put together – Anver Versi [Africa Business Magazine, July 2009 Edition].

Yet Africa is still the poorest “country” in the world.

It makes no sense, just like all the many things in Nigeria that don’t. I’m already comfortable with the reality that most things in Nigeria are counterintuitive. Maybe promoting and selling literature is the next thing we add to the counterintuitive list. What do you think?

Please, join the discussion in the comments.