On good writing

I was reading the Sunday Canberra Times a couple of days ago over a morning cup of tea.  A short syndicated article in the Sunday Focus section alerted me to the fact that this year is the 60th anniversary of the death of British writer, Eric Arthur Blair (aka George Orwell).  George Orwell is one of my favourite authors; up there with Charles Dickens, Emile Zola, Milan Kundera, Wallace Stegner, and Patrick White.  Funnily enough, all those writers might be termed under the heading, “classic” fiction, establishing my literary preferences very clearly.  I do enjoy the odd contemporary novel but for the most part, I enjoy the story and the writing of my classic literary heroes.

I first read George Orwell at school when our English class studied the novel, Nineteen Eighty Four.  I later re-read the book and saw the film starring actors John Hurt and Richard Burton. I also went on to read Animal Farm and Keep the Aspidistra flying.  I enjoyed all three novels immensely.  I will have to find these three books at home for a re-read.  One thing I can say, is that all three novels were brilliantly written and totally absorbing. 

Each story had a significant message.  I always found the message in Nineteen Eighty Four as being equally applicable to the communists (the focus for Orwell) as for the “democracies” when it came to influencing and manipulating public opinion through various methods of propaganda, political “spin”, and news bias.  And Animal Farm was, and still is, quite a metaphor for management science as well as for politics!

A feature of the writing was its quality.  The Canberra Times article (“Orwell still packs a punch”) lists six qualities that Orwell recognised as being indicators of good writing:

1. “never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech that you are used to seeing in print
2. never use a long word when a short word will do
3. if it is possible to cut out a word, always cut it out
4. use the active rather than the passive
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 (above) rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous”

These are sound writing principles, albeit I see some scope for compromise depending on the appropriate context in which one writes.  Nevertheless, Orwell’s six writing principles essentially say to write for your reader – your audience – so that they have no difficulty in understanding what you have to say.

I think the principle of making what we have to say understandable to our audience is very good advice indeed.  The challenge for all of us is to keep good writing principles in mind in all our communications.

And so off to the bookshelves at home to search for my Orwell novels to be read again….sometime in the near future!

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