47. How to Improve Your Written English (According to the Great Writer George Orwell!)

George Orwell is one of the most famous and talented writers of the last hundred years. Fortunately for us, Orwell left a list of rules for writers to follow and questions to consider which will help you to improve your written English. Writing is an essential skill, and something we can always improve! Hopefully you will find Orwell’s tips and tricks useful!

(If you can’t see the podcast player CLICK HERE to listen!!)

VOCABULARY LIST

To convey (v) – to express a thought, feeling, or idea so that it is understood by other people

I tried to convey in my speech how grateful i am for everyone’s help

Passionate (adj) – having very strong feelings or emotions

Joe is passionate about baseball

Imitation (n) – when someone or something imitates another person or thing

Ten-years-olds have started wearing lipstick and make-up in imitation of the older girls

Worn out (adj) – Something that is worn out can no longer be used because it is so old or because it has been damaged by continued use

My jeans are almost worn out because I’ve worn them so much

To emphasise (v) – to show that something is very important or worth giving attention to

I’d like to emphasize how important it is for people to learn foreign languages 

Jargon (n) – special words and phrases that are used by particular groups of people, especially in their work

Business people use jargon all the time

Abbreviation (n) – a short form of a word or phrase

“BBC” is the abbreviation for “British Broadcasting Corporation”

Compulsory (adj) – If something is compulsory, you must do it because of a rule or law

Swimming was compulsory at my school


A few months ago I recorded an episode giving you some tips on how to improve your writing. You are welcome to go back to that episode and listen if you haven’t already. I guess I have some skill at writing, compared to the average person, but I am not an expert, nor a professional, and I don’t always find writing easy. The greatest writers of all time are able to convey meaning and imagery so clearly and specifically through their choice of vocabulary and use of grammar. Their words can express emotion, transport us to imaginary worlds, and even change the way the reader thinks. Despite this, there is also a lot of bad writing and bad English out there. In fact, bad English is probably more common than ‘good’ English!  Wouldn’t it be great if one of the world’s greatest writers, rather than a podcast host like myself, could give you tips on how to improve your writing? Fortunately, that is possible! In this episode, we will look at the tips and tricks recommended by George Orwell.

George Orwell is generally considered one of the greatest writers of the last 100 years; especially in the English language. He is best known for writing 1984 and Animal Farm. I really recommend reading these two books. In fact, if the original versions are too difficult or advanced for your level, they are actually available as graded readers online or on amazon. Graded readers are books designed for English learners! George Orwell was incredibly passionate about the promotion of ‘good’ English. He believed that ‘modern English is full of bad habits which spread by imitation’ and is characterised by a mix of ‘vagueness and sheer incompetence’. In simpler terms, many modern writers are not clear or correct in their use of English, and they are spreading their bad habits to their readers. Don’t worry, though, because in his essay Politics and the English Language, Orwell recommended six rules for writers to follow, and six questions to think about before you start! Let’s start with Orwell’s six rules!

1 – Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print

What does this mean? Orwell believes that many of the idioms and sayings commonly used in modern English are unnecessary and should be avoided if possible. If you invent your own metaphor, and use your own creativity to paint an image in the mind of the reader, then that is excellent. However, most of us don’t do this. Instead we imitate or copy the phrases we see in print (books, papers, TV, internet, etc). According to Orwell, there are a huge amount of worn-out metaphors that have lost their power to create an image in the reader’s head and are only used because people are too lazy to invent phrases for themselves! Of course, for English learners, you need to learn these overused words (i’ve recorded a lot of episodes focusing on business idioms), but if you want to write to a high standard try to be more creative in your choice of vocabulary!

2 – Never use a long word where a short one will do.

The easier to understand your writing is, the more people who can understand it! This might sound simple, but you will be surprised how many native speakers and language learners use long and complicated words in their writing that they would never use in normal life. A good tip to remember is if you have never used a word when speaking, don’t use it when writing. I’ll give you an example. I enjoy devouring delectable nourishment. That sentence is grammatically correct, but do you understand it? No? If I followed Orwell’s rules, the same sentence would be I like eating tasty food! Using long and fancy words does not make your English better! 

3 – If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

Like rule two, this is also a way to make your writing easier to understand and your meaning clearer. Orwell believes modern English is too ‘wordy’; we use too many words to explain ourselves. If you have used a word that doesn’t add any value to your sentence, remove it. The easiest way to start doing this is to stop using adverbs to describe adjectives. For example, instead of saying ‘very hot’ try ‘sweltering.’ 

4 – Never use the passive where you can use the active.

This is a more controversial rule. Some people love the passive voice, and use it all the time. Some languages speak mainly in the passive, or use the passive when speaking politely. English is not the same! What is the passive, you might be asking? I’ll give you an example. Here is an active sentence: Tom ate that apple. Here is the same sentence in the passive: That apple was eaten by Tom. While the active form emphasises the subject of the sentence (so Tom in my example), the passive emphasises the object (the apple). There are many situations where you need to use the passive, and it is definitely acceptable to do so. For instance, if you want to write a sentence, but you don’t know the subject, use the passive. My bike was stolen. I don’t know who stole my bike, so I can use the passive. Orwell’s rule is about people using the passive when it is not needed. In English, you should always try to write and speak actively! 

5 – Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

According to Orwell, bad writers use foreign words, scientific words, and jargon to sound more sophisticated or because they don’t want to write common English. However, for the most part, they are unnecessary. He says “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 simple statements.” Furthermore, he believes that “except for the useful abbreviations i.e., e.g., and etc., there is no real need for any of the hundreds of foreign phrases now current in English.” If you can choose a simple word, with a clear English meaning, use it!

6 – Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous

Barbarous has a few different meanings. Now, we use it to describe something that is very brutal or cruel. However, when Orwell was writing it was commonly used to talk about cultures that were primitive or less civilised than the UK (this is what they thought at the time, not what I think now!). What I think Orwell means here, is that if by following these rules your writing becomes low quality or ugly, don’t follow the rules! 

The standard of English writing would improve enormously if more writers, including lawyers, online marketers, economists, public sector workers, and even computer programmers, followed Orwell’s six rules. Students and authors should also listen to Orwell. Importantly, these rules are not compulsory. Depending on the situation, feel free to break any of them or all of them! However, if you follow Orwell’s rules, you will become a much better writer! 

Orwell also said that a careful writer will ask themselves four questions about each sentence they write. Let’s take a quick look at these questions! They link quite nicely with his rules!

1. What am I trying to say?

It is important for you to think carefully about what you want to communicate. Orwell believes that bad writers only have a general or vague idea about what they actually want to say! 

2. What words will express it?

If you know what you are trying to say,  then you can choose the best words to say it. If you’re not sure what you’re trying to say, you’re more likely to use what he called “stale”, boring, or meaningless language to express yourself.

3. What image or idiom will make it clearer?

Sometimes using an image, phrase or idiom can help explain an idea. However, writers must make sure these are new and interesting. Avoid overused language! 

4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?

The idiom or image you choose needs to be new, fresh, and relevant. A new expression is much better at creating a strong idea in people’s minds and helping them understand what you are trying to say than a well-known one. Old phrases don’t have their power anymore, because we are too used to seeing them! 

5. Could I put it more shortly?

Avoid long and unnecessary words or phrases. SImplicity is key!

6. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?

Can you make your writing more beautiful? If you can, do it!

Final Thought

George Orwell is one of the greatest writers of all time! His six rules to follow and six questions to ask yourself are a great thing to think about when you are writing! If you want to read Orwell’s original essay, I will leave a link at the bottom of the blog! What are your thoughts on George Orwell’s questions for writers? Have you read any of Orwell’s works? What are the most useful writing tips you’ve ever heard?


Orwell’s Essay!

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