George Orwell, the author of classic novels like Animal Farm and 1984, had a talent for simple writing. His books addressed big themes like communism and fascism, but in such uncomplicated language that they are easily understood by schoolchildren. What can business writers learn from his style?
Orwell was passionate about the English language and wrote the essay ‘Politics and the English language’ shortly before 1984 was published. One of the major themes of 1984 is how language can be used and misused to distort reality. Orwell believed language should be clear and concise, used to reveal truth rather than conceal it.
Using Orwell’s golden rules in business writing
Though his essay was written in the 1940s against the backdrop of World War 2, the lessons are just as relevant today. Whether you’re a government communicating Executive Orders or a health organization communicating about Covid-19, saying what you mean as simply as possible is crucial.
1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figures of speech that you are used to seeing in print
In other words, don’t use clichés. They’re boring, and they tempt the reader to switch off. Often, they are completely meaningless, as in the case of phrases like “it is what it is”. Come up with a different way of explaining your point that will capture the reader’s imagination.
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do
Sometimes in government and business, long words and technical jargon are unavoidable. But where it’s possible to avoid it, you should. Too often, technology is described as ‘nascent’ when the word new would be more clear. We ‘utilize’ instead of ‘use’. Words like ‘synergy’ and ‘innovation’ are overused when there is often a shorter, simpler word that would work better. Shorter sentences are also easier to understand than long ones.
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out
People have short attention spans. If you have a habit of writing long-winded, meandering sentences that are full of superfluous words – like this one – readers lose track of your point. Be direct. There’s no need to add in big words to try and sound fancy.
4. Never use the passive where you can use the active
The passive voice is obscure. It’s wordy, lacks clarity, and you don’t know who the subject of the sentence is. When you’re using the active voice, it’s always clear who’s taking action: “Our compliance team will review your application” or “You must submit by August 23”.
By contrast, a government official might say “mistakes were made” instead of “we made a mistake” to avoid taking responsibility. A fun test to see if you’re writing in the passive or active voice is to check if the sentence still makes sense if you add the words “by zombies”. In the example: “Mistakes were made,” you can easily and reasonably tack on “by zombies” to say, “Mistakes were made by zombies.” That sentence is written in the passive voice.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent
Do you start meetings by suggesting a tour de table instead of simply asking everyone to share their views? Have you described things that are finished as a fait accompli? Do you use Latin phrases like modus operandi or ipso facto, and expect that everyone will understand?
While English borrows frequently from other languages like Latin and French, using phrases like that can alienate readers, especially English Second Language or those who don’t have a college education. As always, the rule is to keep it simple.
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous
In business writing, we should be able to avoid anything barbarous. We might take this point to mean we should be careful not to contradict ourselves, go outside the scope of what we were asked for, or just plain get things wrong.
Automating good business writing with
Orwell suggests that every writer – in every sentence – asks themselves these questions:
- What am I trying to say?
- What words will express it?
- What image or idiom will make it clearer?
- Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?
- Could I put it more shortly?
- Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?
Unfortunately, the truth is that most business writers don’t have the time to painstakingly review each sentence. Luckily, there’s a solution. Software like VT Writer can – in seconds – review a document for you and identify any issues. It highlights long, wordy sentences and the passive voice so you can fix-up mission-critical documents in minutes.
You don’t need to send your most important documents to a colleague or an agency to proofread; the software does it for you. This saves time, reduces costs, and removes the element of human error from your business writing.