Tips for Authors

Tips for Authors from George Orwell

Eric Arthur Blair (1903–1950) is known by his pen name of George Orwell. He was an English novelist , essayist and journalist. He served as a military policeman in Burma, where he became highly critical of the British imperial attitudes and practices which he witnessed first-hand (e.g.  Shooting an Elephant). In Homage to Catalonia he reported on the Spanish civil war, and in particular on the role of the media. He wrote Animal Farm, a satirical work on the failure of the Russian Revolution to live up to its own ideals. His last, and some would say,  greatest work, was Nineteen Eighty-Four, a partly historical and partly prophetic account of the methods employed by a totalitarian state to keep its subjects under constant surveillance and to inflict drastic punishment for any perceived breaches of its regulations.

His literary work is distinguished by its clarity and commitment to telling the truth. He was preoccupied by the use and misuse of language, especially political propaganda,  and gave other writers very useful advice which he said he tried to follow himself, but not always successfully.

I have summarized the main points from his essay, Politics and the English Language, because I think that authors can still learn a great deal from it today.

  • Avoid dying metaphors/similes

E.g. iron resolution, fishing in troubled waters, toe the line

Orwell uses some examples himself of fresh images in the essay, e.g.
"An accumulation of stale phrases chokes him like tea leaves blocking a sink"
"A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outlines and covering up all the details"

  • Avoid operators or verbal false limbs

E.g. render inoperative = break; militate against = stop

  • Avoid pretentious diction

E.g. instead of utilize write use, instead of eliminate say get rid of, instead of liquidate write kill

  • Avoid meaningless words

Orwell was particularly concerned with political propaganda and noted that “Fascism” is often used just to describe something which the author disapproves of and the term “democracy” to refer to something she or he approves of

  • Avoid abstract expressions

E.g. Modern prose drifts away from the concrete.

Orwell quotes a passage from Ecclesiastes: "I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill, but time and chance happeneth to them all."

Compare this with the abstract terms used in a modern version invented by Orwell:

"Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account."

  • Never use a long word when a short one will do
  • If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out
  • Never use the passive when you can use the active
  • Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word when you can think of an everyday English equivalent
  • Break any of these rules rather than say anything which is outright barbarous

Some 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?

From the essay ‘Politics and the English Language’.
See George Orwell (2002, first published 1946) Essays, New York: Everyman’s Library, Alfred A. Knopf: 954-967.

Paul Crichton
August 2013, London