Monday, April 12, 2010

Orwell's Rules for Writing

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In today's communication and information systems age, those who write standard English will claim their share of success. But how does one go about writing well? Throughout my professional career in business, George Orwell's rules for writing were my guiding light.

Because I fear that the sands of oblivion will inevitably bury this master of the English language, I want to show come courage and revive for the younger generations George Orwell's practical --if not indispensable-- rules for writing.

At one of the year-end parties I attended last year, I had an opportunity to meet two college young ladies (in their senior year) and chat with them for a while. Of course, the fact that both young ladies were majoring in English Literature raised my interest, for I was genuinely interested in learning what their generation was reading in college nowadays.

To begin with, in no time I realized (during our tete-a-tete) that I had to bridge the 'generation gap.' Imagine my surprise when I learned that neither one of the two young ladies had seen the movie "Rebel without a Cause," and neither one knew who even James Dean was. Well, no great deal here. While the movie plays on TV once in a while, there's really no reason why the younger generation should be interested in a 1955 movie. Since I was reading (at the time) Peter Ackroyd's rendition in prose of the Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, I asked their opinion about Chaucer.

"Not required reading," was their answer.

While many people build dams, bridges, pyramids, castles, cathedrals, and skyscrapers only few build languages. And two of the few that built the English language are Chaucer and Shakespeare. Geoffrey Chaucer lived in the 14th century and William Shakespeare in the 16th. What Homer and Hesiod are to Greek; what Cervantes is to Spanish, and what Dante is to Italian—so Chaucer and Shakespeare are to the English language. Next in importance comes the prolific writer George Orwell, whose self-appointed mission was to preserve, to maintain, and to watch over the beauty and practicality of English.

Given the above surprises with the mentioned college students, I would like to share the Orwell's rules of writing that have been my useful companions in my many years in business and academia:

1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print. 2. Never use a long word where a short one will do. 3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out. 4. Never use the passive where you can use the active. 5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent. 6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

In addition, not only did Orwell write useful and practical essays on the proper use of the English language, but he also wrote great fiction. His novels Animal Farm and 1984 --satiric the former and prophetic the latter-- represent what we now refer to as the Orwellian nightmares. Though unintentionally written, many of his aphorisms are now part and parcel of the English language: "Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past (1984)."

To complete my respect for George Orwell, I will say that he was a man of conviction: served his country when called to serve, faithful to his politics, rebellious against authority, and a man of suffering and passion. These are his words:

"The Spanish war and other events in 1936-37 turned the scale and thereafter I knew where I stood. Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it."

It is through writing that he exorcised his demons; not by writing trivialities, but by writing on noble and serious topics; not as a polished stylist, or purist, but as a sober journalist; not as an academic, but as a practical man; not with vain dreams of glory, but with a humble, deep desire to serve his reading public.

Orwell's legacy is large, but at the end of the day, his rules for writing well, that touches me the most.

To further honor George Orwell, let me go back to my third paragraph and expunge tete-a-tete, which is in violation of rule 5. And from the last paragraph let me remove "at the end of the day," an expression often heard and seen in print.
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