How Hard is it to Write Clearly?

Oct 8th

George Orwell was a great writer. I recently came across a cool paper he wrote in 1946 titled Politics and the English Language. In it he stated that most bad writing typically has the following two signatures:

  1. staleness of imagery

  2. lack of precision

He believed that it is the job of every writer to try to maintain (and improve upon) the clarity of 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. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.

He believed that politics is directly responsible for the demise of language

Political language -- and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists -- is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

Which is only made worse by the all encompasing nature of politics

In our age there is no such thing as "keeping out of politics." All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia.

The core issue is the lack of clarity necessary to make political statements sound reasonable

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism., question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.

Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification.

And the creation and usage of loose words and phrases that are allowed multiple meanings

In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different. Statements like Marshal Pétain was a true patriot, The Soviet press is the freest in the world, The Catholic Church is opposed to persecution, are almost always made
with intent to deceive. Other words used in variable meanings, in most cases more or less dishonestly, are: class, totalitarian, science, progressive, reactionary, bourgeois, equality.

How do you correct the problem of writing watered down language like politicians?

Think visually

When yo 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.

While thinking visually ask yourself these questions:

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?

He also came up with these 6 rules:

  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.

If you ever look at some of the Delicious Popular or Dugg stories and think they are basic, that is probably part of the reason they are popular, because they are easy to understand.

One of the things that makes Jon Stewart so enjoyable is his clarity. Check out Jon 2 minutes in here where he quotes Bush saying "One of the hardest parts of my job is to connect Iraq to the war on terror."

Update: As mentioned in the comments, here is a bit more clarity.

Published: October 8, 2006

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Comments

Richard
March 19, 2007 - 6:20pm

Both videos no longer available ...

October 8, 2006 - 10:09am

Aaron,

Have you watched the video of President GW Bush vs. Governor GW Bush? It's a great look as the political language..and well political BS.

While I respect Jon Stewart, I have to wonder how many of these quotes are taken out of context just to prove his point maybe I'll look into it over the next few days.

October 8, 2006 - 4:02pm

Great post. The SEO industry talks a lot about "quality content", but a lot of times people seem to ignore the importance of clear writing in relation to that.

October 8, 2006 - 4:50pm

Great post. I really enjoy reading George Orwells stuff. The more you read, the better you write.

Nice clip too. I just arrived in Germany and all there is to watch is the daily show. :)

October 8, 2006 - 8:46pm

ive actually heard of him before, and agree his writing is pretty good. Gonna try and apply some of his teachings.

October 9, 2006 - 1:09am

Interesting post Aaron. Unfortunately modern technology has done much to make us poorer writers. Spellcheck has caused many to overlook the need to still proof their own words. How often have we come across to, too, and two or there, their, and they're used incorrectly. Spelled correctly, but misused.

The use of messengers is another example. Instant messenging with it's emphasis on quick typing leads to various forms of abbreviations and shortcut writing that may work in one circle, but leave confusion in another. How many of us stumble over yet another abbrevation each and every day needing to take time to decipher it. Language appropriate in one medium isn't necessarily the best to use in another.

I admit to finding difficulty in overcoming the first signature of bad writing, staleness of imagery. What I've found to work for me sometimes is following Jack Kerouac's spontaneous writing. Just letting oneself go and only stopping to better picture the scene. It's the stopping to better see your scene that has helped me find better imagery. The full out spontaneity has worked better for me to find draft material than a polished piece. It's worked better for me in writing a fictional piece than a non-fictional one.

Thanks for the post Aaron. Writing seems to be moving toward a lost art in the online world and it's good to see someone wanting to see it improve.

October 9, 2006 - 1:14am

Hi Steven
Thanks for the kind comment.

I will be the first to admit I am a bad writer on many levels (spelling, etc.), but I think it is important to escape what everyone else is doing or focusing on every once in a while to keep myself honest.

I can tell my writing has sharply degraded since I stopped reading as many books, but I hope to start reading heavily again soon.

October 9, 2006 - 4:25am

I recently blogged on the same topic. Basically it boiled down to how writing skill is CRITICAL in any aspect of marketing, especially online. Your post goes into more detail than mine however. I hope to expand mine to address poor and proper habits and methods to improve. As mentioned in another comment above we always say "create good content! create unique content!" but don't spend enough time on the principles that would result in such.

Thanks again for reminding us what it takes.

adam gordon
October 9, 2006 - 5:02am

Aaron,

Lovely piece. It seems that I am daily accused of curmudgeonly comments due to my bewailing of the reduction in America's ability to write coherent English. All of us who write, whether marketing, fiction, non-fiction, essays, or something else, are responsible for reversing the trend in American dialog towards laziness, sloth, and general blather.

Orwell was prescient in his ability to forsee the depths to which we would fall. Here's to intelligent discourse!

Thanks, Aaron, for the reminder about these wonderful writers on whose shoulders we all stand. Perhaps we should all be circulating George's peice to all of our colleagues and clients!

October 9, 2006 - 10:29am

Hi Aaron, excellent post ! concerning the political part of it I recommend reading Noam Chomsky books who is very good at explaining how words are used and manipulated for ideological reasons.

Concerning clear writing, here is a nice article : http://textgoeshere.org.uk/articles/2005/10/effective-copywriting/

October 9, 2006 - 4:08pm

Great post Aaron! I'm a big Jon Stewart fan, and loved the Bush vs Bush debate. Much of it is taken out of context, but it is very entertaining. Point well made.

October 9, 2006 - 6:27pm

I recently finished reading Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. Outstanding book.

This paragraph changed everything:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell."

October 9, 2006 - 9:38pm

Aaron, don't sell yourself short as a write. Yours is one of the more enaging blogs in the world of seo and at times I've read through trying to capture a little of your voice form my own writing.

Yes you make your share of typos and/or misspellings and yes there are senteces that aren't grammatically perfect. None of them stop me from continuing to read. The voice you write with is very good and will bring me back again tomorrow and they day after that.

I understand the feelings though. I stuggle with my own writing and am probably much more critical of myself than most others would be. I think that's natural and part of the process of any creative endeavor. We're all going to be harder on ourselves.

I would be more critical if I see sloppy writing on a page trying to get me to buy something or have me call to inquire about services. On a blog though the writing is generally more informal and typos. etc won't bother me. Sure it would be better to have the spelling correct and the grammar as perfect as can be, but there's only so much time in a day and I've often found you can proof your writing over and over and still miss the same mistakes. It usually takes a second or thrid pair of eyes to catch everything.

I think writers should be given a little creative license with the language. I remember hearing long ago that Shakespeare made up a rather hight percentage of all the words he use. I want to say 30%, but I can't really remember. So a good amount of his writing was technically mispelled or grammatically incorrect yet he's hailed as one of the greatest writers in the English language.

Let your voice and style carry you. Both are very good. Definitely try to improve both and work on the grammar, but don't let it get you down if your not perfect. I've never met the person who is.

I think you're right with this post that people should pay more attention to how well we write, but there's a huge difference between a few typos or ending a sentence with a preposition than there is not having an understandng of the language at all.

October 9, 2006 - 9:45pm

Just look at my post above. In the first paragraph alone I'm seeing 3 typos. I spend a few minutes to write a comment and look at the preview and post buttons and decide to go with post. It's so easy to publish online and that leads to overlooking some simple proofing.

Funny though how in a post on the importance of writing better, I leave such a sloppy example of my writing.

October 10, 2006 - 1:43pm

Part of the appeal of blogging IMHO is that people write in their own voice as if they were speaking. People write in contractions and the like focusing more on communicating an idea (quickly?) than on grammar rules. I find it distracting when there are spelling mistakes but for a blog I think style matters less than nil. For a site, it depends on the audience and content. I think that often style matter very little in those cases as well. (Since people were out there clamoring for my opinion...)

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