George Orwell on Web Copywriting

by Joe Pelissier on November 3, 2010

George Orwell

George Orwell, 1933

In 1946 George Orwell published an essay called ‘Politics and the English Language’.

George Orwell believed unclear writing was a ‘contagion’ stemming from ignorance of meaning rather than from intent to hide the truth. In contrast, the complex prose peddled by politicians was deliberately designed to “to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind”.

64 years later and you may think that nothing has changed…

George Orwell, like Ernest Hemingway, was a passionate advocate of writing in plain English.

He felt it had an an honesty and integrity that connected more directly with the reader.

Long words and cliched metaphors were like a ‘cuttle fish spurting out ink‘.

He is right.

How often have you landed on a web page only and to find yourself wading through a dense, black fog of words.

George Orwell’s 6 Writing Rules

At the end of his essay, George Orwell gave the reader 6 writing rules.

Little did he realise how perfect they would be for web writers wanting to communicate with time-poor readers.

Here they are:

1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

In web terms it means avoiding pretentious and self-important terms as well as clichéd phrases.

Lazy writers (myself included) love to talk about the ‘acid test’, how everyone must ‘toe the line’ and having ‘no axe to grind’.

Continue to do this and what you write will read the same as on every other web page.

2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.

Oh, how we love our long words. They make us sound clever don’t they? But long words make the syllable count higher and automatically reduce online readability.

Online you want to help readers to get the message  – FAST.

3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

If this instruction is a bit too bland for your tastes, follow the Ernest Hemingway maxim.

“Most writers slough off the most important part of their trade – editing their stuff, honing it and honing it until it gets an edge like a bullfighter’s killing sword”.

Or, heed the words of Antoine de Saint-Exupery.

“Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away”.

4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.

The active makes your writing more tighter and personal. The passive, in contrast, tends to make what you write harder to understand, especially when a recommendation was made by Orwell that serious consideration be given to the active.

Tip: check whether the verb consists of part of the verb ‘to be’ and a ‘past participle’.

BUT sometimes the passive is good.

‘Parliament blown up by Guy Fawkes’ has more impact than ‘Guy Fawkes blows up Parliament’.

5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

Just because you are clever and know what it means, doesn’t mean that everyone else does.

All you succeed in doing is alienating your reader. Comprendez-vous?

6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Barbarity on a web page is an interesting concept.

Of course, you can willing apply these rules and still publish a page that is poorly written and does not connect with your reader.

You need to apply the rules with passion and energy so that your reader wants more.

The media writer, Nicolas Carr describes how his online reading has changed with a wonderful visual precision – no clichéd metaphor here:

“Once I was a scuba-diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a jet-ski.

So you have a choice. Either you can use these rules to help your reader ‘zip along’ or you can choose to bog them down in black ‘cuttle-fish ink’.

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You can find more web writing tips and strategies in the Web Copywriting category

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