Orwell on Writing: 6 Questions and 6 Rules

As a writer, I can be pretty sloppy or lazy, at times. However, I do look for ways to learn how to improve the quality of my writing. George Orwell had 6 questions and 6 rules he applied to ensure what he had to say was clear to the reader.

6 Questions

A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus:

  1. What am I trying to say?
  2. What words will express it?
  3. What image or idiom will make it clearer?
  4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?

And he will probably ask himself two more:

  1. Could I put it more shortly?
  2. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?

6 Rules

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 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.

From George Orwell’s Essay – “Politics and the English Language.

More short writing tips – Streamline your written messages.

How to Write the Annual Christmas Holiday Letter

Regardless of what you think of them, family Christmas letters have become a part of our culture. Here are some tips on how to write Christmas letters the recipients will enjoy.

1. Start off on a positive note.

It’s a trend you can count on. The bulk of holiday letters begin with a sentence like this: “I can’t believe the year has come and gone so quickly!” Look for something more original and positive to start the letter.

Try openers like, “One of the blessings of this time of year is the chance it gives me to connect with you, my friends and family.” or “We’ve had a happy, busy year here in the Smith household!” Even a stock “Holiday greetings from the Young family!” is a better opener than the traditional plaintive cry about the passage of time.

2 Be yourself. Write in your own voice.

Too often, holiday letters show symptoms of “writer-itis”: big words, inflated sentences, piled-up adjectives. Friends and neighbors don’t want to hear from Edward Bulwer Lytton, they want to hear from you. Use your own voice, and write as you speak. You’ll bring a breath of fresh air–and a happy echo of your own personality–to your letter.

This is the cardinal rule of holiday letter writing. Write like you speak. Your letter should sound like you wrote it, not like it was penned by your seventh grade English teacher.

3 Don’t exaggerate or brag.

If something good happened to you and your family, announce it, but keep it low-key. Readers don’t enjoy gloating. Remember when you played sports in school and had to shake hands with the losing team after winning a great victory? Keep that image in mind while announcing your latest victories.

4 Be creative.

Your Christmas letter doesn’t have to be a long narrative of everything that happened to your family this year. Be creative. Use bullet points, create a puzzle, or turn it into a multiple-choice quiz. Ask each family member for a list of five things they would like to share about themselves in this year’s familyChristmas letter. You may be surprised by what they choose, but their choices will add personality to your letter.

5 Add colour.

Holiday letters are easier and more fun to read when you spice them up with family photos, Christmasclip art, or other images (such as scanned children’s artwork). People love to see photos. Make sure you include pics of the adults and not just kids.

6 Have fun.

Remember that the goal of your annual Christmas letter should be to entertain and inform the recipients. If you don’t have fun writing it, your recipients probably won’t enjoy reading it.

7 Read it out loud.

Have you succeeded in writing an informative, entertaining holiday letter? Read it out loud, or have someone else read it to you. If it doesn’t sound right, go back and revise it.

8 Personalize the letter.

Before sending the letter, personalize each one with a couple of handwritten lines at the bottom of each letter. This adds a personal touch leaving your readers feeling good.

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