Blog of Roger Greene, CEO

“I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”

So wrote Mark Twain. Others have expressed this sentiment, including Blaise Pascale, “The present letter is a very long one, simply because I had no leisure to make it shorter.”

On a similar theme, I posted the following in 2006.

Many business writers produce an awful lot of text that consumes space and conveys little. I suspect many think quantity is quality. All writers would do well to read George Orwell’s essay, ‘Politics and the English Language’.

Some highlights:

“A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: 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? And he will probably ask himself two more: Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is unavoidably ugly?”

“This invasion of one’s mind by ready-made phrases (lay the foundations, achieve a radical transformation) can only be prevented if one is constantly on guard against them, and every such phrase anaesthetizes a portion of one’s brain.”

“In prose, the worst thing you can do with words is surrender to them. When you 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. 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 best to put off using words as long as possible and get one’s meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations. Afterwards one can choose – not simply accept – the phrases that will best cover the meaning, and then switch round and decide what impression one’s words are likely to make on another person. This last effort of the mind cuts out all stale or mixed images, all prefabricated phrases, needless repetitions, and humbug and vagueness generally. But one can often be in doubt about the effect of a word or a phrase, and one needs rules that one can rely on when instinct fails. I think the following rules will cover most cases:

    1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
    2. Never use a long word when 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 phase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday […] equivalent.
    6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

“These rules sound elementary, and so they are, but they demand a deep change of attitude in anyone who has grown used to writing in the style now fashionable.”

“Political language … is designed … to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

Those of us who write for business have much to learn from Orwell’s rules. 1984 and Animal Farm remain popular because he applied them himself.

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