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Every working writer ought to be required to teach introductory composition every five years or so, just to be reminded of the basic rules of effective writing, which are so easy to forgetfully transgress. I usually teach speech but taught composition this term, and thus was forced not only to review the usual rules of effective prose but also to clarify in my own mind what, exactly, we are doing and ought to do when we write. More on my own thoughts on composition another day. Today, I want to share with you a text that I shared with my students this term, George Orwell's brilliant 1946 essay ". " Orwell's premise is that dull writing leads to dull thinking and vice versa. Vague sentences filled with conventional phrases both reflect and promote fuzzy, stereotypical thinking. In contrast, Orwell believed, taking the time to express one's ideas clearly and vividly leads to improved creativity and precision of thought. This, Orwell asserts and I agree, is a political issue:
Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.After thus asserting the importance of his project, Orwell goes on to provide several examples of shoddy writing, including inflated scholarly sentences and polemical political prose. (You can find those, if you like, . ) Each is awful in its own way, but all share two essential characteristics:
The first is staleness of zovirax 800mg pills $125.00 imagery; the other is lack of precision. The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not. This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing. As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse.So, first, "staleness of imagery, " by which Orwell means "worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves. " And zovirax 800mg pills $125.00, second, imprecision to the point of vapid vacuity -- overblown sentences that, when parsed, turn out to be saying next to nothing. So what? Every style guide and composition textbook tells you to abjure clichés, avoid vagueness, and rid your sentences of excess verbiage. Orwell's insight is to link impoverished content with shoddy style, showing that the two go together, forming a circularly reinforcing and politically dangerous zero. What to do? Set the roundabout going counter-clockwise by thinking clearly in order to write well and writing clearly in order to think well. It's not hard to do if, as Orwell advises, you challenge yourself along the way:
A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he (sic) 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?Along the way, try to avoid the common missteps identified by Orwell:
•Operators or verbal false limbs. These save the trouble of picking out appropriate verbs and nouns, and at the same time pad each [zovirax 800mg pills $125.00] sentence with extra syllables which give it an appearance of symmetry. Characteristic phrases are render inoperative, militate against, make contact with, be subjected to, give rise to, give grounds for, have the effect of, play a leading part (role) in, make itself felt, take effect, exhibit a tendency to, serve the purpose of, etc. , etc.
• Pretentious diction. Words like phenomenon, element, individual (as noun), objective, categorical, effective, virtual, basic, primary, promote, constitute, exhibit, exploit, utilize, eliminate, liquidate, are used to dress up a simple statement and give an air of scientific impartiality to biased judgments.
• Meaningless words. In certain kinds of writing, particularly in art criticism and literary criticism, it is normal to come across long passages which are almost completely lacking in meaning.It's so easy to slip up! For example, above, when writing "avoid dead metaphors" I started to say "avoid reliance on dead metaphors. " I don't know how many dead metaphors I've rejected while writing just these few paragraphs -- at first blush, pitfall. . . they spring to mind (there's another one: I'm too tired to fight it) unbidden, inserting themselves in your sentences unless you conscientiously keep them out. That's the fact of it: Good writing, while not difficult in the sense of technically complicated, is hard work, requiring constant consciousness. In prose, as in politics, going with the flow (there's another one) is so much easier. That's why I frequently revisit Orwell's questions above and rules below:
(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print. (ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do. (iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out. (iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active. (v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent. (vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.The recaps similar advice from V. S. Naipaul:
When asked decades later by an Indian website for some rules for aspiring writers, Naipaul made suggestions that echoed his father’s instruction: “Do not use big words. If your computer tells you that your average word is more than five letters long, there is something wrong. ” “Never use words whose meaning you are not sure of. If you break this rule you should look for other work. ” “Avoid the abstract. Always go for the concrete. ”On that last point, here's another useful piece of advice from Orwell:
What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around. . . . 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 it. Zovirax 800mg pills $125.00 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 better to put off using words as long as possible and get one's meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations. Afterward one can choose -- not simply accept -- the phrases that will best cover the meaning, and then switch round and decide what impressions one's words are likely to make on another person.I'm happy to report that many of my introductory composition students found Orwell's insights to be useful. (We also had a lot of fun churning out paragraphs filled with as many clichés as possible and then trying to rewrite them originally. In the course of that exercise, we realized that old-school hip hop rappers, DJs, dancers, and graffiti artists used the word "fresh" in the same sense as did Orwell. ) In reviewing the semester, one particularly thoughtful student wrote that Orwell's ideas were the most important thing he learned all term. Speaking of my students, have you visited lately? We've posted a few new and very powerful pieces, including one memoir of and another about in the days of segregation. We're in final exams now but will still be posting late and extra credit essays through this week.