Press "Enter" to skip to content

On Writing Clearly

Semi-regularly, mostly as a reminder to myself, I post George Orwell’s six rules of good writing, from his 1946 essay, Politics and the English Language. I was spurred to post them again after reading Tony Judt’s essay Words* in the NYR Blog. (As an aside, I had an interesting discussion with Alexande Enkerli, who suggests that the particular mania about clarity and concision in writing is not culturally universal, and is, indeed, particularly, or especially, Anglo-Saxon. Which sounds about right).

Here are Orwell’s six rules; rules I try to respect:

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

(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

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

(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

(*Says Judt: “Though I am now more sympathetic to those constrained to silence I remain contemptuous of garbled language. No longer free to exercise it myself, I appreciate more than ever how vital communication is to the republic: not just the means by which we live together but part of what living together means.”)


  1. Alexandre Alexandre 2010-06-21

    Thanks for the ping! I sincerely appreciate, especially since this conversation occurred a little while ago and I didn’t necessarily expect it to find its way here. You’re description of my position, in that conversation, is quite accurate. Really, much appreciated.
    While my position hasn’t changed much, in the meantime, my approach probably has, for several reasons. As you surely realize, it’s never been about clarity being a negative value. But it was a reminder that “unclear language” may also be valuable, in some contexts. “Flowery language,” for instance, may be valued in some artistic contexts. And obscure language is valued by those who value secrecy. Besides, clear writing is obviously difficult and there are so many opportunities for inaccurate interpretation that it’s a wonder when people actually understand one another.

    Come to think of it, part of the reason my approach has changed is thanks to you: you showed me that these arguments were well-understood (by you, at least), so they don’t need to be overstated.
    Don’t want to preempt your post or talk about myself so much. Just wanted to thank you for your kind help. It goes a long way.

  2. I never get tired of reading (and re-reading) those writing rules from Orwell. Please do keep on re-posting them.

  3. Roy Lee Roy Lee 2010-06-21

    Rule number 7: Check spelling

  4. Found your post through Mitch, very nice indeed.

    I am not a big fan of rules, but Orwell’s rules are now my new favorite.


Comments are closed.