Saturday, April 12, 2008

A Writer's Examen

Politics and the English Language by George Orwell. Recently I have been seeing references to this essay in all sorts of different places, so I finally got around to looking it up online.

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?

I haven't finished reading it yet but I also like this:

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. When you think of a concrete object, you think wordlessly, and then, if you want to describe the thing you have been visualizing you probably hunt about until you find the exact words that seem to fit it. When you think of something abstract you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning.

Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one's meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations. Afterward one can choose -- not simply accept -- the phrases that will best cover the meaning, and then switch round and decide what impressions one's words are likely to make on another person. This last effort of the mind cuts out all stale or mixed images, all prefabricated phrases, needless repetitions, and humbug and vagueness generally.


Anonymous said...

That does look interesting. In fact, from those quotes, it looks like it should be compulsory reading for all students. At least once in their lives. Thanks. I'll go find it.

molly said...

Thanks I am printing this off for my girls.

Mrs. T said...

Oh, I like this essay. I read it eons ago, and had forgotten all about it. Time to pull it out again. Orwell was a prose master for sure.

I'm going to link to this from my English blog -- my co-op kids could use a dollop of prose advice (beyond my usual yadayada) as they polish off their term papers this week.

Thanks, Willa!


momof3feistykids said...

This is excellent!

Anonymous said...

I've now read this. Very interesting. And his point about politics clarifies exactly why I prefer never to write the final draft of commissioned reports. I'm happy to do the analysis and get it into some kind of shape, but the final draft is always about the politics, and often about obscuring all that analysis so as not to annoy certain people.

Or, as in a job I had as a student writing an introduction to a report that would be presented to parliament, "This is a Conservative government. They can't say this." Whether it was the truth was irrelevant. No one questioned the quality of the research or the truthfulness of what I had written, merely that it was written in a way that didn't sound right for the political party in power.

I think the new meaningless phrase is fast becoming something about change.