Orwell’s Six Rules for Writing
- 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.
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.
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.
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.