George Orwell, in his 1946 essay, Politics and the English Language, provided six simple rules for avoiding what he calls “bad English.” They 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 outright barbarous.
To these, I will be so bold as to add a few more I have picked up from years of reading and editing:
7. Learn the standard rules of English grammar and style before writing; you, as author, should be the expert.
8. Edit as you go, rather than waiting until you have completed the work.
9. Expand Orwell’s rule # 3 to entire sentences and passages.
10. It’s only “lyrical” writing if they finish reading it.
Rule #1 is simple: Orwell talks about “dying metaphors [that] have lost all evocative power” and are used only due to laziness. Some examples he provided are: “take up the cudgel for, toe the line, ride roughshod over,” and others. Notably, the first metaphor, and others he used, are now dead, and few would even understand their meaning. Use metaphors sparingly, and be certain they evoke the meaning you intend.
Rules #2 and #5 he summarizes as “pretentious diction.” Long words do not make you sound smart. Learned people use precise words that they know their audience understands. He provides a long list of examples, which you can read for yourself. I summarize it by suggesting the writer choose a word in order to increase understanding, and for no other reason. The “right” word will, by definition, sound best. As Orwell suggests, French, Latin, or other foreign words do not make you sound smarter.
Rule #3 is touted particularly in poetry. As poets, we are taught to examine each word. If it can be removed without altering the piece, it’s unneeded. That applies equally to prose. Orwell makes a sound argument for what he calls “verbal false limbs” that “save the trouble of picking out appropriate verbs and nouns, and at the same time pad each sentence with extra syllables which give it an appearance of symmetry.” In short, we use phrases like “make contact with, render inoperable, give rise to” instead of the simpler “meet, break, create.” Words are not like cash. Readers do not want more words; they want fewer words and more story. As a hint, if you’ve already said it, the readers are smart enough to remember. Don’t go all Stephen King and repeat the book’s damn catch phrase over and over. Simplify, grasshopper.
I won’t beat the drum about passive writing, because it’s been beaten enough. Suffice it to say that you should reduce passivity, because readers want to know what your protagonist is doing, not what life is doing to him/her. Contrary to popular belief, passive sentences don’t have to be zero percent of your writing, but I do think you should strive for less than 10 percent.
Finally, for my pet peeves rules, I will be brief. Nothing can take a reader out of a story she wants to like faster than bad writing. However, you cannot know it’s bad writing if you don’t know what the rules are. Learn when to use (and when not to use) punctuation. Learn the basics of AP (or Chicago) style guides. Learn. Bloody. Grammar. If you don’t believe these are important, go on Amazon and start reading one and two-star reviews. You will find them littered with disgruntled readers harping about poor grammar, editing, and writing.
And while we are discussing editing, understand that it is a big job. Bigger than that. Bigger. Don’t wait for the editor to start the process; go over the last passage you wrote, and re-read for editing. It will cull the gross mistakes and make it easier for your writing to flow from one passage to the next. The objective here, however, is editing as a reader. READ the work; see if it flows, if you stumble over grammar, if it makes sense. You will be glad you did.
My favorite rule is #10. It is how I have (recently) learned to take out those bits of brilliance that I love. If it is your most beautiful writing, but they don’t read it, or if it takes them out of the story, excise it. I know it hurts, but guess what, you can use it somewhere else. Make a poem, a short story, or just stick it on your website to show how gorgeous your prose is. I’ll tell you a secret, those “brilliant” bits are the stuff you’ll read later and groan, “What the hell was I thinking?”
Simplify, grasshopper, simplify. (See how annoying that is?)