The Write Stuff
Six Rules You Can Break
I do so much bellyaching in this column that it might be time to say something about what I consider good writing. But there’s a problem. The writers I read for the sheer pleasure of their company employ such subtle, or sometimes outlandish, effects that they probably aren’t good guides for the kind of straight-ahead prose that public affairs professionals should produce.
Some of these writers are long dead now — Mark Twain comes to mind — but others filed their last copy only a few years ago. I’m thinking here of Christopher Hitchens and Alexander Cockburn. The most entertaining journalist alive and well and operating today is probably Andrew Ferguson, now with the Atlantic. Jack Shafer at Politico is good, too. (OK, Andy and Jack. Now you owe me.)
One of the greats whose prose could be read for sheer enjoyment but learned from as well is George Orwell (1903-50). The author of Animal Farm, 1984 and other books was also a stupendous journalist. His newspaper columns, reviews and other essays are readily available, and there’s a clarity and focus about them that really is remarkable. (I’d call it pellucid but that sounds a bit toplofty, so I won’t.)
Read Orwell. Start with “Politics and the English Language,” an essay he published in 1946. It’s a long essay, and some “rules” he offered in it are useful, even if they only hint at the substance of the piece itself. Here they are:
- 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 a word out, 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.
And then he writes: “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.”
ANNOYING PHRASE OF THE MONTH: As of yet. The New York Times reports that the candidates for mayor of the city have produced plenty of ideas, but “there is not, as of yet, one bold proposal that stands out.” Newsweek tells us that judges in Georgia might offer reduced sentences to felons who get vaccinated against COVID-19. “As of yet, there is no determined amount of time in which judges will be offering the incentive.” As of today? Now? Have not yet? Why the “as of”? “Yet” can be an adverb or a conjunction, but it isn’t a noun. It’s not a fixed period of time. “As of yet” is unnecessary verbiage. You can overlook it when a sportscaster says “as of yet,” but you expect better from the New York Times and Newsweek. Or should.
Contact us at email@example.com.