“What are you trying to say here?” and “How can we explain that more clearly?”
Perhaps the two most effective questions I’ve learned to ask as a tutor, in part thanks to Mr. Orwell.
I suggest every student read this paraphrased excerpt from George Orwell’s famous essay “Politics and the English Language,” and a discussion about the terms and implications follows. Teenagers are prone to writing things that “sound smart,” yet writing with this motivation in mind usually results in amateur-sounding writing. I soften that for students, but that’s the sad truth of it. Clear and concise is the way to go, and by George (!!! excuse this pun), it’s certainly more difficult to achieve. Cheers, Orwell! xo, m
A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus:
- What am I trying to say?
- What words will express it?
- What image or idiom will make it clearer?
- Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?
And he will probably ask himself two more:
- Could I put it more shortly?
- Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?
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:
- 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.