George Orwell’s 6 Questions for Writers

George Orwell
George Orwell

In April 1946, the journal Horizon published George Orwell’s article, “Politics and the English Language.” In it, Orwell chastised bad writing, attributing it to insincerity and self-perpetuating imitation.

He offered an illustration by first quoting the King James version of Ecclesiastes 9:11:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, not yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happenth to them all.

He translated the verse:

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

Comparing the two versions, Orwell observed that the whole tendency of modern prose is away from short, concrete, and vivid words toward foreign words and phrases. In a simpler example, Orwell noted the tendency away from saying “I think” to saying “In my opinion it is not an unjustifiable assumption that . . ..”

How did we get here? Orwell suggested that writers are not asking themselves six 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?
  • Could I put it more shortly?
  • Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?

He then offered six rules:

  • 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 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 say anything outright barbarous.

When drafting an appeal brief, I try to discipline myself by answering Orwell’s questions and applying his rules. The hardest rule for me is the flat ban on the passive voice. As a more recent writer noted wryly, “The passive voice should never be employed.”

Does anyone else apply Orwell’s questions when writing an appeal brief? Please leave a reply or reach me here.





Leave a Reply