Why George Orwell’s six rules of writing matter in marketing
Not just a visionary writer, George Orwell was also a remarkably economical one – conveying much with relatively few words.
- by Peter Labrow
If you consider his ‘six rules of writing’, you can see how they contribute to both George Orwell’s work’s brevity and its clarity.
- 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 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.
Anyone who has read Orwell can cry foul, since – at one time or another – Orwell broke all of these rules. Yet he wouldhave been aware of this – knowing that these rules set an impossible standard. But that doesn’t mean that striving towards them isn’t worthwhile.
Apply these rules to marketing (or, indeed, anyform of business-writing) and their value becomes clear. Let’s take a quick look at each.
Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print
Although using familiar phrases can increase immediacy, it also introduces reader fatigue. It’s not delivering anything new. It’s tired. It can make your writing seem unimaginative.
Never use a long word where a short one will do
The last thing a writer wants is for a reader to stumble. At the least, using longer, more obscure, words slows down the reader.
If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out
I’m not against long copy (in fact, many successful marketing campaigns are wordy) but in general it’s better to use as few words as possible – even if it means that you don’t get across absolutely everything you feel you need to.
Never use the passive where you can use the active
Passive voice is insidious, because we can all naturally slip into it. It’s the difference between Peter was eaten by a lionand the lion ate Peter. The latter is shorter, sharper, more direct.
Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent
This keeps your language direct and avoids the risk of the reader simply not understanding what you’re saying – or of giving the impression that you are showboating.
Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous
Since the common language of 1945 can be uncommon now, ‘outright barbarous’ doesn’t mean something shocking – such as what waits in Room 101. It means ‘don’t write rubbish’ – in the sense that it is better to break one of the above rules than write something which, while grammatically tighter, doesn’t make sense.
Applying the six rules
What these rules broadly have in common is that they aren’t just aids for writing, they are also aids for editing. When coaching people on writing, I say that editing can be half of writing (this almost always solicits astonishment). Yet it’s true: really great writing is the offspring of both creativity and rigour. A one-pass draft is never as good as a two-pass draft – yet much business writing is a one-draft dash-off. Which is why it’s often too wordy, meanders around and doesn’t make points clearly enough.
While meeting them all may be an impossible goal, striving to do so will make your writing briefer, while giving it greater clarity and purpose.