Unleash your inner Orwell


Back in 1946, author George Orwell wrote that English was in a “bad way”. He was most critical of the use of vague, imprecise language that makes it hard to understand even simple ideas.

“Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way,” Orwell wrote in his essay ‘Politics and the English Language’. “Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble.”

He was referring to political texts of that time, which he said “consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness” and were “designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind”.

Orwell’s argument for clear and honest writing remains as relevant today, not least for contemporary corporate writing.

These are how Orwell’s ‘rules’ for effective writing translate for modern business writers:

  • Avoid clichés. If it’s been said before, it’s not effective anymore. This means no ‘out-of-the-box solutions’ ‘leveraged’ for ‘optimal utilisation’.
  • Avoid jargon (see the point above). Also stay away from foreign or scientific words or acronyms that are only used within a specific business or industry. Better to use an everyday equivalent that everyone is familiar with. You might know the DNB is the Dutch Central Bank but does your colleague in China?
  • Choose short words. Keep sentences concise.
  • Cut out unnecessary words. In today’s digital world, time-pressed and information-saturated readers want to get to the point fast.
  • Write in the active voice, not the passive. Which do you think readers prefer: ‘We make cars’ or ‘Cars are made by us’?
  • Finally, never say never. These rules are guidelines that are there to improve, not impede, your writing. Or, as Orwell puts it: “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.”
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