George Orwell, on the heels of publishing Animal Farm and various autobiographical essays, published “Politics and the English Language“. The essay is still being used in writing courses everywhere as a loud voice railing against predictable and unimaginative writing.
In the essay, Orwell makes several remarks of note but his thesis is clear:
“Now it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely.” (par. 2)
Writing the article in 1946, after seeing the horrors of WW2, Orwell understood the power of language to reach a political agenda. The article has political leanings, but there are also parts of the essay that speak more to the point of metaphors and creative writing that fiction writers should read and take note.
Orwell states that every writer should ask themselves these four questions:
- What am I trying to say?
- What words will express it?
- What image or idiom will make it clearer?
- Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?
I think that #1 and #2 are givens for any salty writer. The last two questions are at the center of the Twinkie for the writer. Often writers will use images, metaphors or idioms that are overused and therefore tired. Buzzle.com has listed many of these metaphors or images that have been used so much that they (to quote Ray Stantz) “shouldn’t be touched by a ten meter cattle prod”. Some of my favorites on this list are:
- dead tired
- light of my life
- raining cats and dogs
- music to my ears
- strong as an ox
I am in the middle of writing the first book in a series, and I will have to say that I am taking Orwell seriously as I trudge through the prose. I prune, I cultivate, and I hack away with my mental machete. I am at least conscious of these overused metaphors, images and idioms.
By creating new and fresh imagery, metaphors and idioms, we will by default create better prose that is unique and fresh. Our readers will appreciate the creativity. It will automatically wake those somnambular sentences we are so fond of writing and make the reading of our prose an enjoyable and thought-provoking experience.
Orwell also states that “correct grammar and syntax…are of no importance so long as one makes one’s meaning clear” (par. 18). How many writers have been quashed with rote grammar exercises and being told by teachers to “write using the form”? When we write according to a model or a form, we stifle any attempt at creative style, preventing writers from finding that unique style that is of their own design.
The final advice (toward the end of the essay) that Orwell provides is in the form of 6 rules that every writer should follow:
- 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 word will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive voice 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 saying anything outright barbarous.
The “spirit of the law” I feel is found in rule #6. We need to follow these rules as long as they don’t lead our prose to become low brow and therefore weak. Above all I think Orwell would want us to unlock the beast of creativity we keep locked away in our minds with social media, Netflix binge-watching and many other useless activities that keep us from writing, from really spending quality time crafting the words.