It’s not hard to find advice about how to write – the internet is awash with blogs and infographics and quotes, even from people as lofty and distinguished as Winston Churchill.
When I’m delivering writing courses, the advice which I always explain in detail is that of George Orwell.
He gave six rules of good writing, and here they are:
Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print
Remember how every footballer always used to say he was “sick as a parrot”?
That cliché became much mocked, and my interpretation of this rule is that Orwell is exhorting us to be original and avoid cliches, however tempting they may be.
Even so, using analogies, metaphors and similes will make your writing more interesting and memorable and can help explain complicated concepts, so consider when you could use them to good effect.
One notable example is Jonathan Van-Tam, who used multiple metaphors during the pandemic to explain what was happening.
Never use a long word where a short one will do
When we are writing essays at school or universities, we are encouraged to use impressive vocabulary to showcase our learning. This, however, tends to complicate rather than make it easier to understand what we want to say.
We should always aim for clarity, and using simple language helps us to do this.
Here are some examples: use “start” not “commence”, use “buy” not “purchase”, use “save” not “conserve”, use “used to” not “accustomed to”, and use “walking” not “proceeding along the carriageway”.
This is not an exhortation to use boring or repetitive language – just to avoid the impression in your writing that you have swallowed a dictionary!
If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out
Here are two examples which illustrate the impact of wordiness, with alternatives:
“It is important that you shall read the notes, advice and information detailed opposite then complete the form overleaf (all sections) prior to its immediate return to the Council by way of the envelope provided.”
“Please read the notes opposite before you fill in the form. Then return it as soon as possible in the envelope provided.”
“If there are any points on which you require explanation or further particulars we shall be glad to furnish such additional details as may be required by telephone.”
“Please call if you have any questions.”
Both of these show how wordiness can obscure, rather than clarify what you want to say.
I found Twitter’s initial 140 character restriction really helped me cut out words; I would write the tweet I wanted, find it was too long, then work to remove words without changing the meaning.
Just a few easy words to cut out include:
“that” is redundant in most sentences
“whether or not” generally means the same if you remove “or not”
“this point in time” can be replaced with “now
“during the course of” means the same as “during”
“the majority of” can be replaced by “most
“as a means of” is the same as “for/to”
“due to the fact that” can be replaced with “because”
And finally, “bring to a conclusion” can be replaced by “conclude”
Read more: 15 tips to improve your writing
Never use the passive where you can use the active
First, an explanation of the difference between passive and active.
In the active voice, the sentence is constructed with the subject, followed by the verb, followed by the object. For example:
“We won the award”
In the passive voice, the sentence starts with the object, then the verb, then the subject.
“The award was won by us”
The active voice makes your writing more direct, more active and stronger, and again, easier to understand.
However, there may be times when the passive voice is more appropriate, such as if you are writing a headline or introduction where it is generally better to start most interesting part of the story, what is actually happening, rather than the company or person who is doing it.
Active: “The Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) Public Affairs Board has welcomed the Committee on Standards’ proposals to tighten lobbying rules for MPs.”
Passive: “Proposals for tighter lobbying rules for MPs have been welcomed by the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) Public Affairs Board.”
Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent
Every sector has its own jargon, useful shorthand which is fine to use if you know that whoever is reading your piece will instantly understand it.
However, if they don’t, it can be alienating and confusing for your reader. One example is some engineering clients of mine who always talked about their pipelines. Given their sector, you would assume they were talking about pipes carrying gas or water etc, however, they were always talking about their upcoming work.
Another example I give is this:
“High-quality learning environments are a necessary precondition for facilitation and enhancement of the ongoing learning process.”
In this context, high-quality learning environments are good schools, so you could rewrite this sentence as:
“Children need good schools to learn properly.”
Always consider your reader, and if they will instantly understand the language you are using – and if not, find a simpler, everyday alternative.
Break any of these rules sooner than say anything barbarous
This is Orwell’s final rule – don’t be bound by the rules, and do what you think works.
The best writing is always clear and simple, and the key is to think about your audience, and make sure you use language which they will instantly understand.
If you would like some help sharpening up the writing skills or yourself or your team, we can help. Contact us via 020 8332 6200 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
NB: this article first appeared on the PRCA website.