George Orwell’s 6 rules on writing well

Posted on 20 January 2016 by Lucy Gregory

George Orwell is most famous for his political novels 1984 and Animal Farm. Studying them at school might have put you off Orwell for life. But if you haven’t read Orwell since then, give him another go. He’s a superb writer and there’s much to learn from his style – even if you disagree with his politics.

George Orwell on writing

Orwell’s thoughts on writing style

Orwell didn’t pull any punches. In his 1946 essay Politics and the English Language, he bemoaned the dire state of written English. This was more than an irritation for Orwell, who believed the English language ‘becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.’ In short, write poorly and risk becoming an idiot.

Fortunately, Orwell was nothing if not proactive. To cure English writers of their bad habits he set out his six rules on writing.

These rules are still relevant today and they’re a great basis for your business writing in 2016. Here they are, with a few thoughts on each from us at Attica.

1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

How many times have you been asked to…

run it up the flagpole

go for the low-hanging fruit

think outside the box

open the kimono?

Many business phrases are tired and overused; others are unpleasant. For clear communication, ditch the clichés and say what you mean.

2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.

Insecure writers dress up their language to hide a lack of knowledge. It rarely has the intended effect. A true expert will use a simple writing style to help the reader focus on content.

3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

For a clear and concise style, strip your sentences of unnecessary words. How many words can you cut from this extract?

In order to celebrate the success of the company in 2015, we have taken the decision to award each and every employee who works for the company a bonus of £5,000 to be received on a date no later than 1 February. We would like to take this opportunity to wish you a very happy, joyous and successful new year.

(Click here for our suggested rewrite.)

4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.

Although the passive voice can be useful, it’s verbose and creates distance between writer and reader. For this reason, the best business writers prefer the active.

(For more detail on the active and passive voices, have a read of our enlightening blog: Is your writing in the active or passive voice?)

5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

Technical language offers fast and precise communication for people in a particular industry. But it’s meaningless to everyone else. Consider your readers and express ideas in language they understand.

6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Every piece of writing is different and no rules apply absolutely. If in doubt, remember the essence of Orwell’s message: think before you write.

Happy New Year – and happy writing!


Suggested rewrite

To celebrate the company’s success in 2015, every member of staff will receive a £5,000 bonus by 1 February. We wish you a happy and successful new year.

(Click here to return to the main blog.)