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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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typewriter_jpg-288x300Atlanticisms are American and British dialect words that are understood on both sides of the Atlantic:

  • ad
  • add up
  • air matress
  • attic
  • autumn
  • ballpoint pen
  • Band-Aid
  • bar – not pub
  • bell-boy
  • big spender – not high roller
  • bill – not check (restaurant)
  • billboard – not hoarding
  • bird-watcher – not birder
  • blackboard
  • blackjack – not pontoon (card game)
  • bleach – not Clorox
  • blue-collar
  • boarder – not lodger
  • bring up – not raise (a child)
  • broke – out of money
  • broken – not busted
  • bulrush – not cattail
  • cafeteria
  • call – not ring up (telephone)
  • can opener
  • capital letters – not block letters
  • chickpea – not garbanzo bean
  • chief of police – not sheriff
  • cigarette butt
  • cinema
  • coffin – not casket
  • cop
  • cottom swab – not Q-Tip
  • crayfish
  • crematorium
  • cupboard
  • cupcake
  • curse – not cuss
  • curt – not snippy
  • curtains
  • dad
  • deadlock – not stand-off
  • dessert
  • dishcloth
  • drainpipe
  • drinking fountain
  • dress – not frock
  • dressing-table – not vanity
  • dump – not landfill
  • evening shift – not swing shift
  • extra-large – not outsize
  • fabulous – not royal
  • failed – not bombed
  • field – not pitch (sporting term)
  • fill out – not fill in a form
  • fire engine
  • firefly – not lightning bug
  • fire station
  • foot-and-mouth disease
  • funny-bone
  • glasses – not spectacles or eyeglasses
  • green thumb
  • grill
  • gnat – not midge
  • goose bumps
  • gutters
  • guy – male only
  • hamburger
  • handbag
  • heap – old car
  • hideaway
  • high-rise (building)
  • hike – not ramble
  • house painter
  • icing
  • idiot
  • imagine – not guess (as in “I guess so”)
  • immediately – not straight away
  • jam – not jelly
  • jerk
  • label – not tag
  • lavatory – not bathroom or rest room
  • lawyer – not attorney, solicitor or barrister
  • life jacket
  • lollipop
  • lonely – not lonesome
  • lout – not oik
  • magician
  • mail
  • measuring cup
  • minister – not vicar
  • mongrel – not mutt
  • nail polish
  • napkin – not serviette
  • newspaper clipping
  • newsstand – not news agent
  • nuts – not crackers
  • nutty
  • pack of cards – not deck of cards
  • pantry
  • parka – not anorak
  • paper-wasp – not yellow jacket
  • patch together – not cobble together
  • pawn – not hock
  • pedestrian crossing – not crosswalk or zebra crossing
  • pharmacist
  • pharmacy – not chemist or drugstore
  • physiotherapist
  • plasterboard – not Sheetrock
  • play hookey
  • plum pudding
  • police line up
  • porch – not stoop
  • prison – not penitentiary
  • public swimming pool
  • pushups
  • quarter – not fourth
  • quotation marks
  • racecourse
  • rattle on
  • reform school
  • relic – not holdover
  • rubber boots
  • rummage sale
  • rumpus – not ruckus
  • running shoes – not sneakers, trainers or tennis shoes
  • Santa Claus
  • scuzzy
  • seesaw
  • senior citizen – not pensioner
  • shopping bag
  • shopping cart – not trolley or buggy
  • shopping centre – not mall or shopping plaza
  • shoulder – not verge (of a road)
  • slash – not oblique or stroke (the “/” symbol)
  • slice of bacon – not rasher
  • somewhere – not someplace
  • smitten – not besotted
  • sofa
  • soft drink
  • soil – not dirt
  • stands – at a sporting event
  • sticker – not decal
  • stockings – not hose
  • stopover – not layover
  • stove
  • stuffing – not dressing
  • sucker – not patsy
  • supermarket – not grocery store
  • sweater
  • swimsuit
  • tarpaulin – not tarp
  • tasteless – not tacky
  • theatre programme – not Playbill
  • thermos
  • timetable – not schedule (for buses and trains)
  • toll-road – not turnpike
  • tone-deaf – not have a tin ear
  • tramp – not hobo or bum
  • travelling salesman
  • trunk – not steamer trunk
  • TV
  • usual – not regular
  • vacuum cleaner – not Hoover
  • vending machine – not slot machine
  • waiter – not server (restaurant)
  • walking-stick – not cane
  • wary – not leery
  • wedding ring
  • wharf – not quay
  • while – not whilst
  • wrench – not spanner
  • yell – not holler
  • zero – not nil

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TV Tropes

lampshade_logo_blueTV Tropes (2003- ) is a website (tvtropes.org) that talks about tropes on television shows and in other works of fiction. A trope is a story element that you see over and over again – like Black Best Friends, Impossibly Cool Clothes, Conveyor Belts O Doom, Lampshades and Mary Sues. It started out as a website about the American television show “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (1997-2003) but then grew to take in all works of fiction. After all, many of the cheap plot tricks and sorts of characters you see in “Buffy” are as old as dirt.

Like YouTube, it is a form of Internet crack: it is hard to let go – just one more! – but then the next thing you know your clock is saying two in the morning.

It makes you laugh but it also opens your eyes. It talks about all the things you have seen on television over and over again but never had a name for. Like how evil geniuses never just shoot the hero dead but have some overly long way of killing him that is not properly watched over or guarded (Death Trap). Or how showdowns always seem to take place inside dangerous buildings with bad railing (No OSHA Compliance).

It is a wiki, which means anyone can add to it. But unlike the Wikipedia, it is run by some people who do not take themselves too seriously and still have a sense of humour. Nor do they judge what is “notable” and what is not. And it is cool enough to quote the Uncyclopedia.

Most entries name a trope, give a description followed by a list of examples – from television, film, video games, anime, books, etc. Or it can be the other way round: a work of fiction with a list of tropes that it uses.

It covers not just American and British media but Japanese media too. You can find out why the Japanese draw characters with big round eyes and blue hair, for example. And what the Japanese word is for the part of a schoolgirl’s thigh that shows just below her skirt. It is also surprisingly good (but not great) on racism in American media.

I first saw the website two years ago but then got a new computer and lost the bookmark. I found it again the other night when I was trying to find out the word for the trope where the hero is white even though everyone else in the story is not (Mighty Whitey).

Some of the stuff you already knew, like Black Dude Dies First or Not Too Black, but other stuff you did not – like how television stations in the American South used to cut out scenes with black characters (unless the characters played to stereotype, of course).

Because you will know too much about the cheap tricks that writers use to make a story good, they say you will not be able to enjoy television quite the same way again.

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reader-digest-china-01Reader’s Digest is an American magazine that comes out in 21 languages in 70 countries and has over 70 million readers. That must be some kind of record, so studying how they write articles should help you in your own writing. Here is the advice that I draw from them:

  • Write at an eighth-grade reading level so that even a 13-year-old can understand it. But do not talk down to us, your readers!
  • Make it about people. People are interested in people and love stories about them. Even an article about an important issue is best told through  the stories of the people it affects.
  • The best stories are those about ordinary people overcoming the odds through their own action.
  • The story should have several highs and lows and end on a high.
  • The headline or title should be eight words or less. It should catch the attention of the reader and make at least the general subject of the article clear. Example: “The Great Eye Test Scandal”.
  • The subhead: together with the headline it tells us what the article is about and why we would want to read it. Example: “Undercover for Reader’s Digest, I made a chilling discovery about the people who are supposed to look after our eyes.”
  • The opening paragraph hits us over the head with something surprising or terrible or moving. Example: “I’m going blind. Very slowly my iris is breaking up and particles of pigment are starting to clog drainage channels behind my cornea. Because of this, a build-up of fluid is pressing on the optic nerve at the back of my eye. It’s this pressure that is causing damage. This is glaucoma.”
  • When we get to the end of your article, do not make us feel like we just wasted our time. Tell us a great story, tell us something useful we can apply to our own lives or help us to understand an important issue and what can be done about it.
  • Use plenty of details: Tell us what we see and hear and feel (and maybe even smell and taste), make us feel like we are there!
  • Use plenty of dialogue: We want to hear what the people in the story are saying!
  • Gather anecdotes about your subject, more than you need, and put the best ones in your article. The Reader’s Digest absolutely loves anecdotes.
  • Write only what is true. Check your facts! The Reader’s Digest does. Do not make up stuff or talk in general.
  • Write 3500 words (seven pages) and make it as good as you can. Then cut out a thousand words (two pages)! That is what the editors at the magazine do. That allows the fat and the things that do not quite work to be cut out, making the article tighter and stronger. Every word must be there for a reason.
  • Write to be read in ten years.

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jamesm26James McBride (1957- ) is an American writer and jazz musician. He is best known as the author of “The Color of Water” (1996), which became a number one bestseller in America and is required reading at many schools and universities. He also wrote “Miracle at St. Anna” (2004), which Spike Lee made into a film of the same name in 2008. McBride has written music for Anita Baker (“Enough Love”), Grover Washington, Jr and Barney (no, not “I Love You”).

In 1981 when he worked for the Boston Globe, he wrote a column about his mother for Mother’s Day. It got so many letters that he made it into a book, “The Color of Water”.

His mother was a rabbi’s daughter who ran away from home to Harlem in 1939. She married a black man and became an outcast among whites. Even her own family cut her off. She found herself a white woman bringing up her 12 black children in Red Hook, a poor black ghetto in New York. All 12 children got university degrees, two of them becoming doctors. McBride himself studied music at Oberlin and journalism at Columbia.

As a boy McBride noticed that his mother looked different and asked her if she was white. She said she was “light-skinned”. She always talked about whites as “they” and never as “we'”. Her past was a mystery. He asked her what colour God is. She said, “the colour of water”.

Race was not something she liked to talk about. The book “The Color of Water” tells the story of his mother’s life and, in parallel, his own life and how he comes to terms with colour:

I didn’t want to be white. My siblings had already instilled the notion of black pride in me. I would have preferred that Mommy were black. Now, as a grown man, I feel privileged to have come from two worlds.

He sees himself as black but came to understand that blacks and whites are pretty much the same on the inside. His Jewish background is part of who he is, but he is Christian.

His next book, “Miracle at St. Anna” is about four black American soldiers who fought in Italy in the Second World War as part of the mostly black 92nd Division. Like his first book, it also shows the ugliness of racism and yet at the same time  the underlying oneness of mankind.

His latest book is “Song Yet Sung” (2008). It is a true-to-life story about a slave woman who is being hunted down while she flees north towards freedom. It shows how slavery worked in practice, how it affected the moral lives of both blacks and whites.

His advice to writers:

  • You learn writing by writing.
  • Most books are written between five and seven in the morning.
  • Do not wait; start now.
  • When you fail, get back up, forgive yourself and try again. (Only about half of McBride’s books ever see print.)

Most of that goes for musicians too.

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eminem-picture-2One commenter said this:

Abagond,
No matter how wrong you are YOU must be right. No English teacher in 2009 would allow you to write in a paper “black” with a small “b” no even in the deep south where Blacks are still made to feel like smal “b”. But must be right, right? Why?  White is right, isn’t it? You should just start from this day to pus the shift key when writing the word Black to denote a people. I will not hurt you and it will make Black folk who read what you write feel better about you, me included. Yes how you make other feel should be important to you.

That kind of got to me. And it got me curious: what do black blogs in my corner of the blogosphere use, “black” or “Black”? Here is what I found (these appear in at least four blog rolls with me):

  • black (16): The field negro, Aunt Jemima’s Revenge, Afrobella, Raw Dawg Buffalo, The Black Snob, Beauty in Baltimore, Siditty, Black Women Blow The Trumpet!, What Would Thembi Do?, What Tami Said, New Black Woman, Make Fetch Happen, Jack & Jill Politics, The Root, The Cocoa Lounge, Acting White.
  • Black (3): What About Our Daughters, Mirror on America, Invisible Woman.
  • Both black and Black (3): The Angry Black Woman, Hello Negro, AverageBro.com.
  • Unknown (1): Gorgeous Black Women.

So out of 23 blogs only 3, about one in eight, use “Black” all the time as the adjective for black people. Most use “black” regularly,  like I do.

So while “Black” might be more politically correct, “black” cannot cause that much offence – though I could be wrong.

But as interesting as that is, it is not how I settle matters like this. Instead what I do is look it up in my dictionary: the Eleventh Edition of the “Concise Oxford English Dictionary” (2006). It uses “black” as its main word for black people, not “Black”, much less “African American”, “Negro” or “coloured”. So that is what I use.

The Oxford dictionary was written mainly by white people. So far as I know there is no dictionary of Black American English. And even if there was, I would use it but not to settle matters like these. My aim in using English is to be understood all over the world, not just in one part of one country (Black America).

I do use “Black” on occasion, but only where I talk about blacks as an ethnicity or a culture. In that sense Eminem might arguably be called “Black” but Lenny Kravitz not, even though Kravitz is “black” and Eminem is “white” – by race.

To me what makes you black is not taking part in a particular culture or being shaped by it, like being French. It is not about music or language or anything like that. To me what makes you black is race, the experience of looking black in a white racist country and everything that follows from that.

– Abagond, 2009.

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