This is based in part on William Cane’s “Write Like the Masters” (2009), partly on stuff Orwell said and partly on my own chance observations:
George Orwell gave some rules for writing:
- 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?
And more particularly:
- Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech
which you are used to seeing in print.
- Never us 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.
Of course there is more to it than just that:
- Write what you feel most strongly about. Orwell wrote his best stuff when he wrote about politics.
- Write when you are suffering: Yes. When Orwell wrote “1984″, he had tuberculosis. It made his main character, Winston Smith, more believable.
- Plot: keep it simple. It does not have to have a hundred twists and turns. A simpler plot will allow you to spend more time on your characters, your political opinions and other stuff.
- Characters: as the author you know everything about your characters – but your characters and readers do not! Keep them guessing and wondering. Like O’Brien in “1984″: Winston Smith did not know whose side he was on. But that helps to draw in both Smith and the reader.
- Evil villains: do not make them completely evil – that is not believable. Even Hitler loved animals. O’Brien was well spoken and personally kind. It was not clear how evil he was till the end.
- Repeat stuff: no one is going to remember everything you said in the first ten pages. So Orwell has Winston Smith return to his diary, return to his lover Julia, return to sayings like “Big Brother is watching you”.
- Ending: go for the worst possible ending. Have no mercy.
- Theme: You may not know your theme when you start writing but after the rough draft you will – or should. When you go back to edit your work cut the things that do not support your theme and milk the things that do. A theme, like Orwell’s theme of personal alienation in “1984″, will make your writing seem deeper and more solid: it will hang together better and have more meaning for your readers even if they cannot say in words what that theme is.
- Study and copy other writers: Orwell studied these, particularly the last two, whose passages he copied admiring their lack of adjectives:
- Jack London – good style and plotting
- W. Somerset Maugham
- How to write like the Reader’s Digest
- Stephen King: On Becoming A Good Writer
- James Baldwin: On Being A Writer
- classic prose style
- My rules for writing