With Creatives now well underway and attracting a wide variety of high-quality submissions, I’ve been reflecting on how we select written content for publication.
Most published work goes through an editorial process, and first drafts are often very rough, but certain features are evident in all good writing, whatever its function. As well as being technically proficient, it will have clarity of purpose and will usually present an idea from a fresh perspective. Even in fiction writing, where there’s scope for more free-range thinking, there should be logical progression, variety in sentence structure and fluid transition between ideas and themes.
‘A skilful writer will “show, not tell”, allowing action, imagery and subtext to tell much of the story.’
The writer Ann Handley advises us to: ‘Assume the reader knows nothing. But don’t assume the reader is stupid,’ which seems a good principle to live by. A skilful writer will ‘show, not tell’, allowing action, imagery and subtext to tell much of the story. Acknowledging that the audience is capable of inferring meaning through context builds trust between writer and reader and can avoid the need for overt exposition, which can be tedious and even patronising. Moreover, when things are left unsaid, the reader has to work harder to imaginatively engage with the work.
Both Rudyard Kipling and Ernest Hemingway were proponents of this approach. Hemingway likened a story to an iceberg and posited that the reader should only see what lies above the water, and that the bulk of the iceberg should be comprised of implied knowledge. The spaces left by omissions are then filled by the reader’s own feelings. This, he said, is what gives the story depth and gravitas.
In fiction, this can be achieved by exploring the characters’ actions and emotions, often through dialogue and the artful use of literary devices. Similes and metaphors help evoke imagery; mood, rhythm and tempo can be modified by the repetition of sounds within a sentence, either through alliteration, consonance, or assonance. This is particularly common in poetry, and is used to great effect in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner:
The fair breeze blew, the white foam flew,
The furrow followed free;
We were the first that ever burst
Into that silent sea.
Down dropt the breeze, the sails dropt down,
’Twas sad as sad could be;
And we did speak only to break
The silence of the sea!
Like Kipling and Hemingway, George Orwell favoured brevity. He recognised that language and thought are inextricably entwined, and in ‘Politics and the English Language’, he argued that careless writing ‘makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts,’ which, in turn, lead to ‘ugly and inaccurate’ prose. According to Orwell, a scrupulous writer should ask the following questions: 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? He then added: Could I put more surely? Have I said anything that is unavoidably ugly?
With the above in mind, Orwell established six rules for writing good English, which can be applied across most genres and disciplines:
‘Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.’
Although these are common features in creative writing, Orwell observed that much modern literature contains tired metaphors which are ‘generally so arranged as to be more or less euphonious’. This has the attraction of saving the writer from having to cast around for the right words or grapple with sentence rhythm. But while an original figure of speech can effectively conjure a visual image, hackneyed analogies, such as ‘grist to the mill’ or ‘stand shoulder to shoulder with’, lose power through overuse. Clichés are so commonplace in our language that we are often oblivious to them—no doubt there are several in this article.
‘Never use a long word where a short one will do.’
George Eliot is quoted as saying that, ‘The finest language is mostly made up of simple unimposing words.’ But to demonstrate intellect and affect an air of authority, some writers use long, uncommon words, often at the expense of clarity: ‘advantageous’, instead of ‘helpful’; ‘pertaining to’, instead of ‘about’; ‘expeditiously’, instead of ‘quickly’; and so on. I’m certainly guilty of this, and at times I’ve felt somewhat sheepish when rereading an overblown account I’ve given of some fairly mundane event. In fact, I could just as easily have used ‘show’ instead of ‘demonstrate’ at the beginning of this paragraph.
‘If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.’
Brevity can also be achieved by using as few words as possible to convey an idea. Orwell observed that writers often try to make banal statements sound profound and ‘give an appearance of solidity to pure wind’ by using what he termed ‘verbal false limbs’, such as ‘due to the fact that’, instead of ‘because’, or ‘for the duration of’, instead of ‘during’.
We can liken this rule to a concept known as Occam’s razor, which says that ‘plurality should not be posited without necessity,’ and that, all things being equal, simplicity is better than complexity. It’s a useful heuristic, whatever the purpose of your writing. For example, instead of combining a general-purpose verb with a noun or adjective, such as ‘ran fast’, we might use a strong single verb, such as ‘sped’. ‘Extremely angry’ could instead be described as ‘livid’ or ‘furious’. Not only is this shorter, it’s also more compelling and implies a greater sense of urgency.
‘Never use the passive [voice] where you can use the active.’
Writing in the active voice is usually clearer and prevents sentences from becoming too complicated because fewer words are required to express an action: ‘They summited the mountain,’ rather than ‘The mountain was summited by them.’ The active voice also confers a sense of agency: ‘I’m sorry I upset you,’ rather than the slope-shouldered: ‘I’m sorry you were upset by my actions.’
Sometimes, though, the passive voice is more effective, such as when the agent of an action is unknown, or the writer wants to emphasise the event rather than the actor. The passive voice is also standard in scientific or academic writing.
‘Never use a foreign phrase, scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.’
Although it’s common to see Latin phrases in legal or scientific writing, Orwell observed that non-English words are sometimes shoehorned into prose to add a veneer of culture or elegance, in much the same way that jargon is used to lend credibility to empty rhetoric. How often have you heard ‘contacting’ someone being described as ‘reaching out to’ or ‘touching base with’ them? Or a new approach being described as a ‘paradigm shift’? (I confess to having recently acquired the annoying habit of declaring, wearily, that I don’t have ‘enough bandwidth’ to deal with some or other everyday task.)
Of course, sometimes a well-worn metaphor is precisely what’s needed to convey a particular idea or set of circumstances; there may be only one technical or non-English word to describe something (think schadenfreude); cutting out words might ruin the rhythm and tempo of the prose; an important event might be best brought to the foreground by using the passive voice; and so on. Which brings us to Orwell’s sixth and final rule:
‘Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.’