The craft of … George Orwell

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Orwell has long been a hero of mine, for a number of different reasons. There’s his personal courage in the Spanish Civil War; his brilliant understanding of the nature and methods of fascism – and indeed all kinds of fundamentalism; and the number of his ideas and phrases that still resonate today: Big Brother, doublethink, “all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others” and many more. Nineteen Eighty-Four in particular now feels like a primer for the so-called (and how Orwell would have mocked the phrase) war on terror, and Big Brother’s mantra “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength” like an epitaph for the presidency of George W Bush. 

But what makes Orwell particularly relevant to Mastersvo is his dedication to rigorous thinking and clear language. In his classic essay Politics and the English Language Orwell outlined some of the ways in which language can be used as a weapon of persuasion, deception and obfuscation. “If thought can corrupt language,” he wrote, “then language can also corrupt thought”. Good writing, on the other hand, should be “like a windowpane”: you should be able to look through it to see exactly what is being written about. This is especially important in screenwriting, which gives you only very limited verbal tools to bring an entire visual, aural and emotional world to life, and where every image has to count towards the story. So here are Orwell’s six rules towards good writing:

  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.

You can now read Orwell’s daily diaries as a blog, thanks to the Orwell Trust.

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One thought on “The craft of … George Orwell

  1. Thanks for the info. Dipping into Orwell’s diaries will be a pleasure to indulge in during my ever-diminishing moments of free time. (How Orwellian is the phrase ‘free time’?)

    You’ve written a great summary of some of the things Orwell should be well-regarded for. I would only add his courage in not only denouncing Fascism, but his courage in seeing through the analogous fantasies of Communism as well, at a time when many of his contemporary intellectuals portrayed the Soviet Union as some sort of socialist utopia, and any criticism of it was seen as .bourgeois ignorance at the least, or Capitalist propaganda at worst.

    Orwell suffered professionally for his views, but to his credit kept making the case that the atrocities being committed under the flag of equality were still atrocities.

    I had only ever known Orwell as the author of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four until a couple of years ago when I had to write an essay on the essay form itself, and found how influential Politics and the English Language had been on so many writers.

    That led me to chasing up some of his other journalism and other pieces, and was astonished at how much of it translated directly into out times. A great man, well-deserving of hero status.

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