Orwell and Rule Three

Orwell

Orwell and Rule Three

In the previous post, I listed Six Rules for Writing  created by George Orwell and focused on why Rule 2 (Never use a long word where a short one will do) is so important for writers. In this post, I want to talk about Rule 3.

Rule Three: If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

On the surface, this has a ho-hum, yeah, yeah feeling to it. Sort of like your dentist reminding you to floss. Sure, I’ll do it when I have a minute.

And the ‘always cut it out.’ A bit extreme, surely. Discuss among yourselves.

Example

Alex hid among the bushes, with hands trembling and knees weak. He knew he might have to run at any moment but he wasn’t sure his legs would hold up. He tried to slow his breath. I can do this. I’ve got this.

Seems okay, no? Let’s see what happens when you cut words. This bit was 43 words.

Applying Rule 3 to the example

Alex hid among the bushes, with hands trembling and knees weak. He knew he might have to run at any moment but he wasn’t sure his legs would hold up. He tried to slow his breath. I can do this. I’ve got this.

Here is the cleaned up version.

Alex hid among the bushes. Hands trembling. Knees weak. He might have to run at any moment but would his legs hold up? He slowed his breath. I can do this. I’ve got this.

Discussion

See what a difference cutting words can make? Tightening up the word count also tightened up the tension. It more closely mimicked Alex’s staccato breathing and thinking. It pulls the reader into the scene more effectively.

The number of words cut wasn’t that great. 43 in the original. 34 in second version. Nine word difference which makes all the difference.

(Although almost 20% of the sentence was cut. That’s a lot over the course of a manuscript.)

Obviously, what and where you cut is a judgement call. For example, Alex is repeating himself when he thinks I can do this. I’ve got this. I decided it was worth leaving both statements as a reflection of the kind of self-talk a person in his situation might do.

Cutting words helps heighten tension in a scene but is effective with all types of writing.

It helps the reading flow for readers. I’m not sure that extra words get in the reader’s way so much as slow her down. Extra words which don’t need to stand in-between her and your exciting climax.

Situations where the Orwell rule 3 might not apply

So, being an enthusiastic proponent of Rule 3, I have discovered that it can be taken too far. An obvious problem is if you cut so much that you confuse the reader.

But I have discovered a penchant which actually hurts the reading. I love to cut thats. I could have written (from above): An obvious problem is if you cut so much you confuse the reader.

The ‘that’ is cut and the sentence is still understandable. However, if you do it too much, the reader is kicked out of the continuous dream. My beta readers reported that, over the course of the novel, they had to reread certain sentences. The grammar was correct but dropping the ‘that’ violated their expectations and made them focus on the language itself rather than the story. A focus which is the writer’s job not the reader’s.

But I’d still say, cut, cut, cut.

Orwell’s Six Rules for Writing

orwell

Orwell’s Six Rules for Writing

So you know George Orwell’s famous novels like Animal Farm and 1984. In addition, he set down Six Rules for Writing which are:

  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.

All good advice but I want to focus on two of them: #2 in this post and #3 in the next.  The action called for is self-evident but writers don’t always seem to understand the logic behind them. And because the reasoning isn’t obvious, it may not be clear why they embody such wisdom and are so worth following.

Rule 2: Never use a long word where a short one will do.

On the surface, it’s hard to imagine why it matters. Long words abound. Politicians can use them to cloud the issue. I would never obfuscate on such a monumentally portentous issue.  But medical people can use them for precision. It involves the integumentary system. Sports use terms particular to their activity. Wow, that guy just got posterized.

But generally, although long words might delight the writer’s instinct for the new and different, most readers are not fascinated with the words themselves but more focused on the unfolding story.

Here’s an example and an alternative.

Example—meandered

She meandered through the forest, her ambulatory exercise freeing her mind to address the shattering decisions preying on her psyche.

Applying rule 2 to the example

Walking through the forest freed her mind up to think about the decisions worrying her.

Discussion

I know the first sentence is over the top but it’s possible that the second sentence might feel as if it lacks drama or even interest. You might be right. However, if you look carefully, the drama in the first example, such as it is, comes from the writer telling you how to feel about the heroine’s issues (shattering, preying).

In the revamp we know the heroine is worried, but we’re not directed by the writer on how to feel about it. Presumably, he’ll show us what’s worrying her and we can decide ourselves how shattering and predatory the issues are.

So, you don’t need to, nor should you, have one sentence do all the work or all the reader’s thinking. Plain, short words present the action in a clear and understandable way. It’s up to you to build them into a compelling story.

Situations where Orwell’s rule 2 might not apply

Sometimes, the longer word is preferable because of its precision. Take the word disingenuous. Other, shorter, words—like dishonest—might be similar but ‘disingenuous’ has the particular implication of being deceitful knowingly. It is built into the word. A person might be dishonest without realizing it—from lack of knowledge, etc. Using ‘disingenuous’ removes that possibility.

So, use a longer word to capture accuracy. However, and especially if it’s an esoteric long word, don’t pack it closely together with others of the same ilk.

In short, long words if needed but not as a way to show off how learned you are (which I know you are).

Next post: Rule Three: Cutting out words.

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Feedback from a Non-Writer to a Writer

non-writer

Feedback from a Non-Writer to a Writer

So, this is the post to send to all the non-writer friends and family who read your writing. You want useful feedback but it’s actually hard to get unless they know what you want. Because—

They are readers

You remember the continuous dream. It is the state you want to put readers in. They sink into the world you’ve created and live happily in it. If you’ve done it well, your readers are reacting as if they’re living the story with your characters.

Great for the reader. Bad for the writer. In fact, the more successful you are at creating this dream, the less successful your readers are likely to be in giving the kind of feedback you need.

An example

Your non-writer friend has kindly read your magnum opus.

You: How did you like it?

Reader: Oh, it was great.

You: Thanks, but what did you like about it specifically?

Reader: Well, uh…well, I liked Jillian—I really felt for her.

You: But what about Jillian made you feel for her?

Reader: Well…well…

The reader is focused on how he feels about the story. The writer is focused on how to create the feelings the reader experiences. To give you the most useful feedback, the reader must break out of the continuous dream to notice why you made him feel the way he did and how you did it.

It’s a tough ask.

And not really the reader’s job.

But without this kind of feedback, the most you get are general statements of what the reader liked and didn’t like. Sometimes helpful but often not.

You need more specific instructions.

Note to your non-writer reader

Dear Reader

I really appreciate that you’re taking the time to read my writing. Naturally, I’m very interested in knowing what you think of the story and the characters. But in addition, could I ask you to do a couple of things?

  1. Track your reading. That is, record the page where you put the book down every time you stop.
  2. At what page did you flip to the end to see how many pages were left?
  3. Were there any points where you just kept reading even though you had other things to do? If so, where were they?

Thanks so much. The answers to these questions will help me improve the story.

Analysis of the feedback

Tracking the reading

Where people put the book down can be, but isn’t always, where the interest might be waning. Look at the few pages prior to the stop to see if there is anything which could be improved. Too much description? Lots of talk, no action? A lot of inner dialogue? You might get clues where to tighten up, rewrite, or dump.

Flipping to the end

This often happens around the middle of the book. Knowing exactly where can help you determine if you can move the plot along faster or otherwise help people to get over the hump of the middle.

Had to keep reading

So, your reward. Where this reader couldn’t put the novel down. Take a look at these spots. Do a little basking but then give them a careful read. What made them work? Could you apply this learning to other chunks in the novel to ummph them up?

This isn’t a foolproof way to get the feedback you need but signaling what you want to the non-writer can be useful. I’ve talked more about getting the most from readers’ opinions in another post.

From the General to the Specific

specific

From the General to the Specific

Let’s talk specific rather than general. It’s very common for writers to pen something like:

Jen was very bossy. She was always telling her co-workers what to do. Even with her family, nothing got done unless she okayed it.

Not the end of the world as writing goes, either good or bad. But weak, I think. First of all, it has the air of telling the reader what to think about the character (which is bossy in and of itself) and no, following it up with corroborative examples from the office and home don’t make it less tell.

Now, if Jen is a very minor character, then I’d let it go. You presumably want Jen for some limited purpose which, once achieved, she will drop off the literary cliff into oblivion. If that’s the case, the example paragraph might work.

But if she is more major, then starting off with this sort of general descriptor doesn’t work as well.

Specific first

Let’s do the scene again.

“No, not there.” Jen moved the vase to the edge of the table.

“But it might tip over,” Clark objected.

“Nonsense. It balances things much better.”

“But I want Lilly to see them as soon as she comes in.”

“She can see them fine from here,” Jen held the vase firmly in place.

So, here we see Jen do something specific. The word ‘bossy’ doesn’t get mentioned but we get the message. And in a way which is more vivid and therefore more likely to stick in the readers’ mind.

This specific approach has other advantages. It allows the reader to come to his own conclusion about Jen’s personality and the act of doing so involves and commits him more to your story. You allow him to make an emotional investment in the character.

This applies in many places

This specific first approach works in many venues. Here are a couple of examples.

General Specific
The mountains were beautiful One peak, the tallest, had caught the sun on its tip and was holding it there, balanced, as if a daily trophy.
The man was old His hands. Not claws exactly. But not not. He shuffled over to pick up the glass.

Again, don’t need to do this for absolutely everything. But if there are points which you’d like the reader to remember, go with a specific example from which the reader can generalize to the conclusion you’re aiming for.

Do I hear, “Doesn’t this take longer?”

Yes, the old bugaboo. It does take longer to write and takes more work. But is your aim to write the fastest and easiest piece of literature known to man (sic)? Of course not. That’s writing jingles. Instead, you want to use every trick you can to engage the reader so that no matter how long you take, he is with you all the way.

Lots of Events, No Story

events

Lots of Events, No Story

In the last post, I discussed Amor TowlesA Gentleman in Moscow which, while it had lots of events to recommend itself, a story that went somewhere seemed absent.

I want to talk about how to up the chances that your novel will have forward motion. But before I do it, I do want to repeat that a compelling plot is not the only thing which makes a novel attractive. It might be beauty of the language or brilliant capture of the nuances of a character or a time or a setting.  If this is where your novel is focused, then ignore this post.

But if you’d like to make sure that your story has forward motion, read on.

Events do not a story make

I think the idea that lots can happen in a novel but still not have a story is a tough concept. But without a plot that gives meaning to the events, the reader is left vaguely dissatisfied but doesn’t know why.

So, indulge me if I try another example, this time a good one. In Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, a widow and her three daughters try to make their way in the world when her husband’s estate passes to the male heir. They move, they meet interesting new people, the older girls fall in love, etc. So, lots happen. The difference is that the novel has forward motion. We want to know what is going to happen to the family, particularly the two young women. We keep reading for that reason.

This applies to memoirs

By the by, memoir writers should take note of this concept. Memoirs are not, or should not be, just a listing of the events of your life. That’s history not memoir. Remember, a Memoir is a Lifestory, emphasis on story. You want your readers to want to keep reading so you need to build in a sense of forward action beyond the tried and true, I-was-born-I-lived-I’m-writing-this-before-I-die.

Building story in

So after harping on what a difficult concept forward action is to identify, the answer is, I think, is a lot less mystic.

You need to make sure you build in the classic plot structure. You know, rising action, climax, etc. The novel needs to build to some point that the reader cares about. Will the young women marry the right men? Will the hero overcome the monster? Who killed Cock Robin? (Sorry).

I know this seems an obvious and even disappointing answer. But I find a surprising number of writers, perhaps carried away by the fun of creating secondary characters and subplots, forget this fundamental principle. They may end up with an entertaining novel but they are less likely to create a story that readers can’t put down.

So carefully review your manuscript to make sure that you have built this forward action in. This includes establishing a goal or outcome the reader cares about but isn’t limited to that. Does the rising action keep rising at a good pace or does the story get bogged down in interesting byways and asides? Is the climax ‘justified?’ That is, has the protagonist done enough or changed enough so that the outcome is satisfying rather than out of the blue.

So think of this as good news. The fix to forward motion is very doable. A lot of work, but doable. Not unadulterated good news, I grant you.