In my last year of high school I read George Orwell's essay, "Politics and the English Language." Five years later, I still refer to it. His words are cemented in my brain. Orwell is known as a visionary, someone whose words were thought to hold particular truths about the future. At the very least, the guy knew how to write. In this particular essay he's trying to tell us that the English language (and society itself) are in a state of decay. He explains the cause/effect relationship between language and writing by using a metaphor. A man who fears failure may drink, and as a result, he fails. It's a vicious cycle. He writes that our language is a mess because our thoughts have become foolish. But the way we are engrained in language and its use in our culture causes us to have foolish thoughts.
To fight against the decay of our language and quality of speech isn't trendy. When people are indoctrinated to read, speak, and think a certain way, it's hard for them to see the value in change. Orwell writes:
"It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes."
He explains the specific ways we've ruined the English language through politics. Have you ever read a statement from a politician and had to sit and analyse its meaning? The hallmarks of political writing are vagueness, pretentious diction and the use of euphemisms in place of something more blunt. For example, when discussing war, people often say "collateral damage" in place of "the killing of innocent victims."
"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."
And even though Orwell wrote this essay in 1946, the essence of the message hasn't changed over time. I'm going to go through 5 ways he can teach us to write with conviction.
1. Put dead metaphors to rest.
Anything we're used to seeing in print tends to roll off the tongue. I'm guilty of this myself from time to time, I'll admit.
Some examples: beating a dead horse, hell in a handbasket, stand shoulder to shoulder with, fish in troubled waters, etc. There are hundreds, possibly even thousands of these tired clichés.
The problem with them? Orwell puts it simply, by saying they present "staleness of imagery." When we read these expressions they often fly completely over our heads, we miss their meaning because they conjure no real image for us. Fresh, original thoughts are much more powerful.
2. Always cut a word out when you can.
It's easy to be vague in our writing, or extend our thoughts over multiple sentences. We see this a lot in academic writing. I'd be reading my sociology textbook and have to read and re-read every other sentence because they just seemed to drag on and lose my interest. That's not good. Orwell argued that prose consisted less of words for their meaning and more "phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse."
3. Avoid using foreign phrases, jargon and scientific terms.
People often use a foreign word to sound formal or authoritative on a subject, but they don't realize that it has the opposite effect. The plainest, most ordinary English word has a clearer meaning and a harder impact on people.
I encountered this a lot in my university career. As a journalism major, I developed a thorough understanding of the power of simple, ordinary English, which furthered my appreciation of what Orwell was trying to tell us. My sociology profs would tell me my term paper was "a good read" and I'd laugh because I'd think of the hours I spent dissecting academic papers written by "experts." A few times they were so unclear that I ended up crying in frustration. Why use 100 words when you could have said it in 10?
4. Don't use a long word when a short one fits.
To further develop the point made above; why use "inextricable" when you can say "tangled?" Why put "circumvent" in place of "avoid?" Why "terminate" instead of "end?" It sort of goes without saying. What sounds better? It's almost always the simplest form.
"The psychologist delayed terminating the session because the patient was visibly overwrought."
"The psychologist delayed ending the session because the patient was clearly distressed."
5. Be active in your writing.
Vague writing is the worst kind of writing. If you're not sure about what you're saying, or you simply don't care about what you're saying, how do you expect your readers/audience/customer to care? Be direct. Use active words. I'll give an example of the contrast:
It has happened that people have lost interest in the use of proper grammar on social media channels because they couldn't have been bothered to make the effort.
People aren't using proper grammar on social channels because they're lazy.
It's easy to fall into long, passive, boring habits. We all do it. But as soon as we become conscious of it, we can catch ourselves at it, and start communicating more effectively.
We can't let our language skills fall apart on social channels. It's even more important that we be producers of good content. Social is a relaxed environment; it's free, it's open, it's very casual. The language should accommodate this. But when we blog, tweet, or post, we should keep these tips in mind. People are compelled by good writing; meaningful and to the point. Clear?