Writing Tips from George Orwell

One of the most incisive essays I have ever read on the art of writing is the short and stunning piece, ‘Politics and the English Language‘, written by George Orwell in 1947. Here, Orwell described a cliche as a ‘dying metaphor’. Orwell follows up with a succinct list of guides to follow:

  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.

If it hasn’t crossed your desk yet, I highly recommend it. You can access it here.

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I Have a Confession to Make

I have a public confession to make. I have a serious problem—a profound weakness, and it only gets worse with age.

I am completely, totally, helplessly in love with reading. But not just one book. I find myself embroiled, entangled, enmeshed, ensnared, and ensnarled in reading sometimes more than 10 books at a time. It’s not healthy. If I read one at a time, I could probably read more in a year. But I can’t. It doesn’t work like that.

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I now play mental tricks with myself to justify the habit, creating different ‘categories’ of books. It started out simple: Fiction and Non-Fiction. And then I started reading books about writing. Fiction, Non-Fiction, and Writing. And then I picked up a few on interesting psychology research: Fiction, Non-Fiction, Writing, and Psychology (sub-category, Non-Fiction). Next came books not just on writing, but on specific grammar and style. Fiction, Non-Fiction (sub-category: Psychology, and also Science snuck in there somehow), Writing (sub-category, grammar and style). And then Poetry. And then Short Stories. And, um, Krista Tippett (maybe, Books by Podcasters?).

I feel good now, though. I feel lighter that I’ve let you know about my problem. Maybe I can add a few more books now that I’ve shed the weight of this secret…

In the spirit of National Book Week, I am going to post the 5th sentence on page 56 of each of the books I’m currently reading:

If you ask someone to recall a seemingly random assortment of words verbatim, starting with the first word— “was smelled front that his the peanuts he good hunger eating barely woman of so in could that him contain”—the average person will remember only the first six of those words. Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool.

“When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not in the story.” On Writing, Stephen King.

I have never felt so terrible. Tenth of December, George Saunders.

“I’ve recently been thinking more and more that it’s so astonishing that the Old Testament prophets hardly ever discuss an “issue.”” Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living, Krista Tippett.

I could settle on nothing. House of Light, Mary Oliver.

That man was Tycho Brahe. Cosmos, Carl Sagan.

From the people comes political support or opposition; from the public comes artistic appreciation or commercial patronage. The Elements of Style, Stunk and White.

Better yet, the genetic sequences could be recorded by feeding samples into machines, taking the DNA strands apart one base pair at a time, and preserving them as strings of data that could easily be archived and replicated. Seveneves, Neal Stephenson.

 

What Can Business Learn from Songwriters?

I was kindly invited by Soren Trampedach and Work Club Global, in collaboration with the Sydney-based organisation Affectors, to present an information session on some of the Screen Shot 2016-07-15 at 4.13.55 pmcraft and process of a songwriter and musician. The audience were entrepreneurs and culture creators. The discussion that came about found fascinating interplays between language in song and language in all types of communication.

An excerpt is provided below, but you can read the whole article and listen to the discussion by clicking HERE.

Keppie played with language, testing us all on our ability to recall certain words, she shared the theory and the practice of song craft and she played some beautiful indie folk tunes that were open to interpretation.

And in the space of 2 hours, relaxing on a lounge enjoying wine and cheese, I learned three business relevant insights:

1. We must show people what we mean, rather than tell them, even if it’s with their imagination. We can do this by painting a picture with words that our audience can relate to.

2. Sense based language is far more memorable than task orientated words. When I talk about a strategy and use words like ‘approach’ and ‘task’ they don’t stay in the mind as easily as nouns (Keppie proved this with an audience participation experiment). So I’m going to re-evaluate my language and look to bring more colour to ‘strategic dialogue’ in future.

3. Evocative words, memorable language, losing yourself in the music – all of these create an experience in music that’s carefully crafted around notes, but also silences, pauses and spaces. We can be afraid of silence and so keen to fill it – but what if we don’t? What if we allow people to create meaning and to connect with us in the same way they connect with a piece of music. Wouldn’t this allow us to have far more interesting relationships?

VIDEO: The Psychology of Lyrics

Thanks to the Sydney Conservatorium of Music for hosting their first inaugural Teach Meet – a public lecture series of music educators presenting a short demonstration of an effective classroom tool.

You’ll need a pen and paper to do the quick exercise at the beginning of the lecture. Enjoy!