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William Huster

A Small Time CTO Near You

Improve Your Writing

Since keeping a blog consists mainly of writing, and I haven’t studied writing for some years, I definitely needed a refresher. So I took some time today to search online for some writing style tips. Perhaps you will find my discoveries useful:

The Economist has a great style guide online, which is apparently based on the book they give to all of their new journalists. American readers take note: the guide is for British writers, so the diction suggestions will probably not apply to you.

The introduction to the guide offers some great tips, many of which come from George Orwell’s 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language.” Orwell’s six points on writing style are perhaps the best advice about English writing ever given, so they bear repeating (you can go read the rest for yourself). I first read Orwell’s essay in high school, and I have kept these points in mind ever since. I know they have improved my writing immensely:

  • Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  • Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  • If it is possible to cut out a word, always cut it out.
  • Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  • Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  • Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

In his essay, Orwell focuses his fury on those writers who use Latin roots to construct elaborate “academic” words to impress others or, more insidiously, to hide their true intentions. Today, we are familiar with seeing this kind of writing in politics, insurance policies, and legal documents. Simple, concise, and unambiguous writing, by contrast, is a rare treasure. Such writing is found in great and enduring works like the bible, the poems of Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Gettysburg Address.

In fact, I have read that Abraham Lincoln was widely-criticized by his opponents because he spoke simply and not at all like an “educated man” was supposed to speak. The public loved him just the same, because his words required no decoding. You might say that he spoke directly to the heart. At 183 words, the Gettysburg Address is even shorter than this post! That is the power of simplicity.

So be concise. Start with a simple idea, translate it into simple words, and then revise it, cutting out any left-over fluff. Be merciless, and your readers will thank you for it. The only way to improve is to practice, which is why I use my best writing style even when I send text messages. More practice never hurts.

This is my new mantra: “The best way to be boring is to leave nothing out”—Voltaire

By the way, I don’t want to be boring!

Review your English grammar: http://www.fortunecity.com/bally/durrus/153/gramch28.html