Advice For Writing Well
For several years while I was writing actual published material (as opposed to the stress-free work of blogging) I had several such lists printed out and taped to the bookshelves above my computer, and consulted them constantly. They included a couple of quotes and a couple of lists of rules from English writers I trust, C. S. Lewis and George Orwell.
From a letter C.S. Lewis wrote to an American schoolgirl who wanted to learn to write better:
- Always try to use the language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure your sentence couldn’t mean anything else.
- Always prefer the plain direct word to the long, vague one. Don’t implement promises, but keep them.
- Never use abstract nouns when concrete ones will do. If you mean “More people died” don’t say “Mortality rose.”
- In writing. Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the things you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us the thing is “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers “Please, will you do my job for me.”
- Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say “infinitely” when you mean “very”; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.
Lewis built on the first point in the last interview he ever gave, when asked what advice he would give to aspiring writers who want to “develop a style.”
The way for a person to develop a style is (a) to know exactly what he wants to say, and (b) to be sure he is saying exactly that.
The reader, we must remember, does not start by knowing what we mean. If our words are ambiguous, our meaning will escape him.
I sometimes think that writing is like driving sheep down a road. If there is any gate open to the left or the right the reader will most certainly go into it.
George Orwell wrote a critical essay on the use of language, calledPolitics and the English Language. If there were a test for American citizenship, I would expect familiarity with this essay to be among the things it tested. You can (and should) read this essay here. At the end of the essay, he provides a list of rules that “sound elementary… but… demand a deep change ofattitude in anyone who has grown used to writing in the style now fashionable.”
(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.
(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.
(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
What do you think of this advice? Do the writers you read often follow it? Would you remove anything from the lists? What would you add to them?