George Orwell’s 6 Rules for More Effective Writing

Successful fundraising professionals must be effective communicators. In part, that means we are required to be skilled writers whether we’re creating a case for support, a direct mail appeal, annual report, heart-felt thank you, or other document. Fortunately, we can still learn some powerful writing tips from a legendary author.

George Orwell published his now-classic novel Nineteen Eighty-four 70 years ago. In addition to his many works of fiction, he also wrote a number of non-fiction essays including Politics and the English Language. This composition explores the general demise of writing quality and looks at how language has been twisted for political advantage. It remains relevant today.

As Orwell states:

A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble.”

You or I may never rise to the level of an Orwell, but we can take a number of steps to improve our written communications. By doing so, we will ensure that readers understand what we say. Furthermore, our words will have the greater emotional effect we desire. While many grammar and technical rules exist, and are certainly worth studying, Orwell outlines six simple rules for better writing:

1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

Failing to follow this rule leads to two problems. First, relying on clichés minimizes the effect of the message. If people have heard something many times before, they will likely find the message dull. Second, using clichés can render a message nearly meaningless or even misleading.

By keeping your writing fresh and original, your message will stand a better chance of cutting through the clutter of messages. This will help your written words resonate with readers and inspire them.

2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.

Some people might think that using big words will demonstrate how smart they are. However, using the shortest words possible will ensure that more people understand what you are trying to say. Using shorter, simpler words will indicate, to those who know better, that you are a skilled writer.

To ensure that readers understand your messages, keep your word choices simple. Even when writing to an educated reader, keep it simple.

3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

Choosing simple words is not enough. You also need to string those words together in short sentences. Your goal should be to write at a sixth-grade reading level.

Even those at a college reading level will find it easier to read and understand text that uses short words and short sentences. As you edit your text, think of how you can eliminate unnecessary words.

4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.

Using the passive voice will make your message sound dull. It can also slow down a reader. By using the active voice, your writing will be lively rather than boring. It will also be easier to understand. You’ll be more likely to engage readers that way.

While there are times when passive voice is appropriate, you should strive to maximize the use of the active voice.

5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

George Orwell

While you know what you’re trying to say, your reader might not if you’re using words they find unfamiliar. For example, many prospective donors will find the term “planned giving” confusing. That’s because only 37 percent of Americans over the age of 30 say they think they know what the word means. “Planned giving” is jargon. Instead of talking with donors about “planned giving,” talk with them about the gift you want them to consider (e.g., gift in a will, Charitable Gift Annuity, gift of appreciated securities, etc.).

Remember, you’re the writer not the reader. You need to write in such a way that ensures your reader understands you. Avoiding foreign phrases, scientific words, and jargon will help strengthen your writing.

6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Writing rules are not immutable laws. Orwell intends his rules to enhance communication and engage readers. If adherence to a particular rule in a particular situation fails to accomplish that, abandon the rule as Orwell urges. The primary objective is better communication not blind adherence to a set of standards. Orwell explains:

These rules sound elementary, and so they are, but they demand a deep change of attitude in anyone who has grown used to writing in the style now fashionable.”

Orwell acknowledges that following his rules will not guarantee brilliant writing. However, he believes it will lead to better writing.

In addition to following Orwell’s six rules, you can improve your writing by using some simple, free tools that were unavailable to Orwell. For example, MS-Word contains a built-in grammar and spell check tool. Grammarly is another tool that will work with your word-processing program as well as a variety of social media platforms. Grammarly offers free as well as premium paid-subscription versions. ProWritingAid is similar to Grammarly and also offers free and premium paid-subscription services. For a description of 15 various free and pay tools for writers, checkout the list compiled by Zapier.

What are your favorite writing tools?

That’s what Michael Rosen says… What do you say?

2 Comments to “George Orwell’s 6 Rules for More Effective Writing”

  1. MR,
    I love this.

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