Thursday, June 23, 2011

George Orwell: Rules on writing well

Here are George Orwell's six basic rules for writing. They are taken from his essay, "Politics and the English Language." If you haven't read the essay, then I strongly urge you to do so. Politicians are still abusing the English language, and I doubt they will ever stop.

(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.

How well do these rules work? Well, below is an example of Orwell's own prose, taken from a short work titled "Shooting an Elephant," which I also strongly urge you to read. How well does he follow his own rules? Do you think this is an effective piece of writing?

(When a young man, George Orwell joined the colonial police and was stationed in Burma, which was part of the British Empire at that time. One day, a working elephant ran amok, and Orwell as the local police officer was called on for help. He felt forced by his audience to take some definite action, since he was part of the ruling establishment, and had to show them that he was in control of any situation and ready to take necessary action. One couldn't lose face in a situation like this. So, he decided that he had to kill the elephant.)

"When I pulled the trigger I did not hear the bang or feel the kick--one never does when a shot goes home--but I heard the devilish roar of glee that went up from the crowd. In that instant, in too short a time, one would have thought, even for the bullet to get there, a mysterious, terrible change had come over the elephant. He neither stirred nor fell, but every line of his body had altered. He looked suddenly stricken, shrunken, immensely old, as though the frightful impact of the bullet had paralysed him without knocking him down. At last, after what seemed a long time--it might have been five seconds, I dare say--he sagged flabbily to his knees. His mouth slobbered. An enormous senility seemed to have settled upon him.  One could have imagined him thousands of years old. I fired again into the same spot. At the second shot he did not collapse, but climbed with desperate slowness to his feet and stood weakly upright, with legs sagging and head dropping. I fired a third time. That was the shot that did for him You could see the agony of it jolt his whole body and knock the last remnant of strength from his legs. But in falling he seemed for a moment to rise, for as his hind legs collapsed beneath him he seemed to tower upward like a huge rock toppling, his trunk reaching skywards like a tree. He trumpeted, for the first and only time. And then down he came, his belly towards me, with a crash that seemed to shake the ground even where I lay."

Each time I read this paragraph I can see and feel what Orwell saw and felt. Joseph Conrad in the introduction to one of his novels said that above all what the writer must do is make the reader "see." Orwell succeeds here, at least for me, for I can "see."


  1. I agree. A great author makes me feel like I was there with the characters, seeing what they see and feeling what they feel. I also think "showing" what's happening is better than "telling" what's happening, especially when getting across a character's feelings. This paragraph about the elephant does all that.

  2. Cheryl,

    Orwell has a number of powerful scenes (in _1984_, for example, when Winston is faced with the rats in the cages,) but this one about the death of the elephant has stayed with me for many years now.