Many people ask what it takes to become a good writer, when I think what they’re really wanting to ask is: what does it take to be an effective writer? The former can only be answered based on individual opinion, whereas the latter can’t be argued. Effective writing is concise and effortless. It says what needs to be said and nothing more, though for most writers this is a lot easier said than done. As they say, “Easy reading is damn hard writing.”
George Orwell, most famous for his novels Animal Farm and 1984, was also famous for his journalism and essays – particularly, the timelessness of his six rules for writers. Honestly, who better to learn from? His writing is friendly and welcoming. He always focused on simplicity and didn’t drown his readers with unnecessary words or jargon.
His tips have always been the key ingredient of my writing career: whenever I find myself over thinking my creative process, his tips are what I turn to in order to regain my focus.
Here are 6 tips to learn effective writing from George Orwell:
1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
This first tip is so much harder than I thought it would be! Clichés are deeply embedded in our everyday conversations due to their casual nature – so much so, they become difficult to avoid because of how mindlessly we say them. (Guaranteed, I’m going to skim over this article as I’m revising it and will miss at least three.) During casual chats with friends and family, not such a big deal, but when you use them in your writing, one of two things usually happens:
- Your reader will wonder why you didn’t take the time to find a more interesting way to tell your story, and might peg you as a beginner.
- Your reader will shrug it off, but will have no emotional response to your writing whatsoever.
Always ask yourself as you’re writing: “How can I say this in a fresh way?”
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
I’m going to blame this widely made blooper on high school English class, where rigid essays with stiff prose scored you many As, but don’t translate at all into writing for the real world. As an avid reader, there’s nothing that distracts me more than having to stop, figure out how to pronounce a word, then bust out my dictionary to find out what it even means. Most people won’t do this – they’ll assume you’re pretentious and move on.
Always use words that can be understood by as wide an audience as possible.
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
Less is more. Make every single word you’re using count toward your big picture. Use your delete key so much you rub the word right off. Any word that doesn’t belong dilutes your overall message, making for weak prose.
4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
An active voice means the subject is performing the verb. For example:
Active: Doug hit the tennis ball.
Passive: The tennis ball was hit.
Using an active voice makes your writing sound more concrete, direct, and confident.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
This is one of my biggest challenges, especially when I’m working on health articles where disorders and terminology pop up as often as I need a coffee refill. It’s crucial to find equivalent wording a wide range of people can relate to and understand.
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
Make sure each piece you write is completed to its highest standard. This is often our biggest challenge, since how do we know if it’s the best it can be when we’re so close to the project? Plus, we’re always growing and changing and so are our writing skills – what we think is fabulous today could be hamster cage lining to us tomorrow. Here, I let my instincts be my guide. If I’ve done my absolute best, that’s all anyone can ask for. You have to let it go, take everything you’ve learned, and move onto your next writing project.
Whether you’re writing fiction, non-fiction, or an e-mail to a friend, these rules apply to everywhere you use the English language. Always remember: efficient equals effective.
I highly recommend you read his entire essay to learn effective writing from George Orwell. It’s a must-read!