Writers on Writing: George Orwell’s Six Rules

Again, I thank 101 Books for pointing posting this list of George Orwell’s “don’ts” for writers, which comes from Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language”:

  • 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.

Essentially: Avoid cliches. Avoid pretentiousness. Avoid wordiness. Avoid wimpiness. Avoid rule-worship.

These lessons are as applicable to the high schooler trying to impress me with big words to the burgeoning professional writer turning editors away with unpleasant prose to the showy blogger. I thank my dad for teaching me the gist of this when I was in high school. He read a letter that I wanted to share with the family, and he said, “Son, when you use all of those big words, it comes off as arrogant.” I remember being so mad at him for that, but, over the course of several years in college, realizing more and more that if I wanted to communicate with people, I was going to have to accept that he was 100% right. No one likes talking to (or reading the words of) a pretentious twit.


Writers on Writing: Jonathan Franzen’s 10 Rules

Jonathan Franzen is a big name in contemporary literature. I haven’t read any of his books yet–though I want to–but, as a teacher of reading and writing (and, of course, as a reader and writer myself) I found this blogger’s posting of Franzen’s 10 Rules for Writing insightful.*

This list came from The Guardian:

  1. The reader is a friend, not an adversary, not a spectator.
  2. Fiction that isn’t an author’s personal adventure into the frightening or the unknown isn’t worth writing for anything but money.
  3. Never use the word “then” as a conjunction– we have “and” for this purpose. Substituting “then” is the lazy or tone-deaf writer’s non-solution to the problem of too many “ands” on the page.
  4. Write in the third person unless a really distinctive first-person voice offers itself irresistibly.
  5. When information becomes free and universally accessible, voluminous research for a novel is devalued along with it.
  6. The most purely autobiographical fiction requires pure invention. Nobody ever wrote a more auto biographical story than “The Metamorphosis”.
  7. You see more sitting still than chasing after.
  8. It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.
  9. Interesting verbs are seldom very interesting.
  10. You have to love before you can be relentless.

Essentially: Don’t try to impress your reader. Venture into unknown territory. Autobiography requires inventiveness (“The Metamorphsis” is a short, disturbing read; check it out to get the full whallop of what Franzen is saying here). Writers are observers first. The internet is the fiction writer’s worst enemy. Don’t try to impress your reader (really).

I enjoy Franzen’s quirky rules as well — “then” versus “and,” third-person versus first-, etc.

*Special thanks to 101 Books for making the post, and best of luck on your journey to finishing the list!