Orwell and Rule Three


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.


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.


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’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.


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.


Lots of Events, No Story


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.

A Gentleman in Moscow


A Gentleman in Moscow

Amor Towles’ widely acclaimed A Gentleman in Moscow was published in 2016. It is the story of a Russian aristocrat during the Russian Revolution. His sanctuary/house arrest is the luxurious Metropol Hotel where he meets a girl who shows him the inner workings of the hotel. A moody chef, among other characters, figure in his discovery.

I found I enjoyed reading the novel while reading it but when I put it down, it took me a long time to pick it up again. This happened again and again. At about page 250, I think I figured out what was causing the sporadic reading.

The novel has lots of events, but no real plot. Things happen but the novel doesn’t seem to go anywhere.

A Gentleman in Moscow has other charms

Although I enjoy a good plot, I recognize that novels can be excellent for other reasons. I can and do appreciate living in the world Amor Towles created. The Count is quite a delightful character and his insights into Life are both apt and apropos. NPR’s review of the book says:

All of the verbal excess, the gently funny mock-epic digressions, the small capers and cast of colorful characters, add up to something undeniably mannered but also undeniably pleasant.

And I agree. It is lovely to read when I am reading it.

But there is the problem that I keep putting it down and not picking it up for a long time.

Lots of events, no story

This is tough concept to get. The idea that lots can happen, but there is no real story. The closest thing I think I can get to is when you watch, willingly or otherwise, somebody else’s vacation photos. Lots of places are visited, lots of boats boarded, lots of meals consumed. But it isn’t so much a story as a litany of events.

Which is fine for holiday snaps but readers usually expect more from a novel. I am prepared for people to argue that A Gentleman in Moscow does so have a story. I might even agree with them. But fundamentally, although things happen, it doesn’t have a sense of forward motion. The sense that the protagonist is going to end up somewhere different or be someone at least slightly different.

It might be argued that it is more real life to have a protagonist who is adapting as well as he can to a difficult situation. True. But, as I have said Fiction is Not Life and how it really happened is not actually an adequate defense against the charge of no story.

Fiction has its own rules. In order to feel authentic on the page, it often requires a distortion of what usually happens in real life. And generally, fiction requires that the story goes somewhere even if we don’t necessarily expect our own lives to come to a climax which is resolved in a surprising yet satisfying way.

Well, it is possible that A Gentleman in Moscow does suddenly develop a forward motion even if there was no sign of it at page 250. I’ll let you know when I get back to it.

Next post—how to turn events into a plot.

Establishing a Character Trait


Establishing a Character Trait

This might be another fiction is not life post in that what you do on the page, might not be what happens in real life. You want to provide your lead character (let’s call her Dani) with a trait, either positive or problematic, to create a rounded character. Say Dani is shy.

In real life, and over an extended period of time, you’d probably notice various actions—not talking much, avoiding social gatherings, spending a lot of time alone—which would lead you to conclude that Dani is shy.

But in fiction, if this shyness figures significantly in the plot, you need to establish this fairly early on in a way that sticks in the reader’s mind. Then you can build your story with that understanding firmly entrenched and avoid the reader being confused by what might seem like Dani’s puzzling or at least unexplained behavior.

Just a note—in this post, I am talking about a characteristic on which you might be building as part of your plot. It is NOT the character trait or flaw which you spend the entire novel unfolding so that the climax is partly the reveal of the presence or absence of the attribute.

All right, so it’s hard to think of a climax whose conclusion includes, “Oh, she’s shy. Now I get it.” But it makes more sense if we’re talking courage, self-sacrifice, selfishness, etc. The subject of this post is the quality (e.g. shyness) you want to nail down early on to support/mitigate/excuse/contextualize the final conclusion on the heroine’s personality.

Building a Character Trait

You already know that having somebody say of Dani, “Gosh she’s shy,” is tantamount to tell in quotes. Efficient but not effective. If you want this to stick in the reader’s mind, it needs to be more than a passing comment.

If you can, and it fits well into the plot, you might have a scene where Dani shows her shyness in a way which is memorable, probably because it embarrasses her or puts her in an awkward position. She might be asked a question whose answer she flubs, to the merriment of those listening and to her humiliation. Whatever fits into the plot.

Having established this fairly early on, you can even give the reader the pleasurable sensation of being in the know. Every time Dani is faced with a potentially difficult situation, the reader knows how she’s likely to react.

In addition, doing an establishing scene fairly early on means you just need to drop reminders of the trait occasionally without elaborate explanation.

Evolving a characteristic

Sometimes, it’s enough for your plot that you have shown that Dani is shy and she stays that way for the rest of the novel.

Other times, however, you might need the trait to progress because it helps the story. For example, Dani may need to overcome her shyness in order to help the climax, whatever it is, to come to fruition.

If this is the case, you can’t go from church mouse at the beginning to roaring lion at the end. It’s going to be jarring and not all that credible. Instead, in the reminders suggested above, you might consciously build in small steps of bravery which make the final fearlessness both believable and satisfying.

See what I mean? In real life, Dani’s road to courage would be haphazard, two steps forward, one back, and even long periods in hiatus. In fiction, it is a more linear progression. That is a writer’s reality.