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How to write like Orwell

Orwell used a Remington Portable typewriter

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:

  1. What words will express it?
  2. What image or idiom will make it clearer?
  3. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?
  4. Could I put it more shortly?
  5. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?

And more particularly:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech
    which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never us a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  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 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:
    • Aristophanes
    • Jack London – good style and plotting
    • Zola
    • Melville
    • W. Somerset Maugham
    • Swift

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Orwell: Why I Write

The following is based on George Orwell’s “Why I Write” (1946):

George Orwell knew he wanted to be a writer since he was five or six and yet avoided becoming one till he was 24 and did not firmly make up his mind to be one till 33. In the end he found he had to write.

In the 1700s he might have become a Christian minister:

A happy vicar I might have been
Two hundred years ago
To preach upon eternal doom
And watch my walnuts grow;

But he was born to evil times when evil men, like Hitler and Stalin, wanted to rule the world. Democracy was disappearing. After fighting in the Spanish civil war from 1936 to 1937 he made up his mind. He had two talents: he was good with words and he was good at facing unpleasant facts. So from 1936 onwards he used those talents to fight against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism.

He says there are five motives that drive every writer to one degree or another; they are always there no matter how weak:

  1. To earn a living: Journalists are more concerned about money than serious writers, but even serious writers must eat.
  2. Sheer egoism: “Look at me!” Wanting to be remembered after you die, wanting to bend your life to your will instead of going with the flow like most people do after age 30. Writers share this in common with artists, scientists, businessmen, etc. Writers do not like to admit to it, but it is often their strongest motive.
  3. Aesthetic enthusiasm: the love of words and their beauty, of putting them together in the right way. Even textbook writers feel this. “Above the level of a railway guide, no book is quite free of aesthetic considerations.”
  4. Historical impulse: wanting to see things as they are and get the truth out.
  5. Political purpose: wanting to change the world by changing people’s ideas of the kind of society they should work for. Even “art for art’s sake” is a political stand.

In a more peaceful age the political motive would have barely mattered. As it was he found he wrote his best stuff when the political motive was uppermost. Anger at injustice drove him more than anything else:

I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.

And yet as a serious writer he wanted to write well, to create art. It was not always easy to do both at the same time.

But in the end, as much as he might try to make sense of it, he says wanting to write is a mystery:

Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.

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In “A Nice Cup of Tea” (1946) Orwell gives his 11 golden rules for making a good, strong cup of tea. Here they are in short. I put the measurements into metric and added some Notes of my own along the way:

  1. Use tea from India or Ceylon (Sri Lanka), not China. Tea from China is cheaper and you can drink it without milk, but it is not as strong. It does not make you feel wiser, braver or more hopeful. Note: unless the box says otherwise, tea is a mix of different teas from both India and China as well as other parts of the world. English breakfast tea, however, is mostly Indian.
  2. Make tea in small quantities: a litre at a time in a teapot made of china or earthenware – not enamel or metal, not even silver (though pewter is not bad).
  3. Warm the teapot beforehand.
  4. Make the tea strong: use six rounded teaspoons of tea for a one-litre teapot. One strong cup of tea is better than twenty weak ones. Note: Orwell says that two ounces of tea (60 grams) should make 20 good, strong cups of tea (5000 ml). That comes to 12 grams a litre or 3 grams a cup (250 ml). An American tea bag has 2 grams of tea. Orwell’s tea is a third stronger than what Americans are used to. Well, more than a third:
  5. Put the tea straight into the pot. No bags or anything to keep the tea from properly mixing into the water. Drinking in tea leaves will not hurt you.
  6. Pour in boiling water. Bring the teapot to the kettle and pour the water into the teapot.
  7. Give the pot a good shake – or at least stir it. Afterwards let the leaves settle to the bottom.
  8. Drink out of a good breakfast cup, not a tea cup. A breakfast cup has sides that go straight up and down. This makes it deeper and keeps the tea warm longer.
  9. Use milk, no cream.
  10. Pour the tea into the cup first, then add milk. This lets you put in the right amount of milk.
  11. Do not add sugar! It destroys the taste: you will be tasting sugar, not tea. Why not just drink hot water with sugar instead? Tea, like beer, is supposed to be bitter. That is its taste. If you think you do not like the taste of tea by itself, try it without sugar for two weeks and see. Then you will understand how sugar is destroying the taste and will probably not want to go back (I agree).

I tried making tea this way. It is much better and stronger than the sort of tea Americans are used to. It makes American tea seem like dirty dishwater.

Orwell’s tea has three times the kick of Coke and twice that of Mountain Dew, but without getting you hooked on it, like with coffee.

Postscript: You can get something pretty close to Orwell’s tea this way:

  1. Put a plain old bag of Lipton tea (2.0 g)  in a covered tea cup (pictured).
  2. Fill it with water (230 ml).
  3. Microwave it as long as you can without it boiling over and making a mess. With the lid on, that might be like a minute and a half (two minutes with no lid).
  4. Add milk (10 ml), no sugar.

This is how I have made my tea since at least 2008.

Tip: Use a Chinese tea cup, one with a lid (pictured above). Your tea will stay hot way longer.

– Abagond, 2007, 2016.

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Written: 1946
Read: 1988, 1990, etc

This is so good that by far the best thing is to give you a taste of it in 500 words or less. The rest of this posting is Orwell (and would, by the way, count as Common English except for the one example of bad English):

I am going to translate a passage of good English into modern English of the worst sort. Here is a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Here it is in modern English:

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

This is a parody, but not a very gross one.

The first contains 49 words but only 60 syllables, and all its words are those of everyday life. The second contains 38 words of 90 syllables: 18 of those words are from Latin roots, and one from Greek. The first sentence contains six vivid images, and only one phrase (“time and chance”) that could be called vague. The second contains not a single fresh, arresting phrase, and in spite of its 90 syllables it gives only a shortened version of the meaning contained in the first. Yet without a doubt it is the second kind of sentence that is gaining ground in modern English.

A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus:

  1. What am I trying to say?
  2. What words will express it?
  3. What image or idiom will make it clearer?
  4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?

And he will probably ask himself two more:

  1. Could I put it more shortly?
  2. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?

What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around. In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is surrender to them.

I think the following rules will cover most cases:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech
    which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never us a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  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 rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

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. One could keep all of them and still write bad English, but one could not write the kind of stuff that I quoted …

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