Orwell on Un-slovenly Thoughts

In Politics and the English Language, written in 1946, George Orwell mused, “Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way.”  Imagine if Orwell had been able to see what unfolded over the next 70 years.

You may not consider yourself a ‘writer,’ and it’s possible that writing doesn’t feel integral to your work. Even so, consider this a nudge to invest in your writing—the yields are broader than you might imagine. Writing is not a narrow skill, like juggling or doing a cartwheel. It is a mirror into the mind: we cannot write clearly and persuasively if we are unable to think clearly and persuasively; and as we move the needle on our writing, we sharpen our powers of observation, analysis and storytelling.

Writing with the intention to change minds hones our abilities—to see what’s around us and develop insights about what we see, to understand the worldview of the people whose minds we aim to change, and to communicate in ways that shift thinking and actions.

Begin by choosing to write more. This is much more helpful than choosing to write well. Trying to write well is the best way to end up not writing a lot, and you cannot write well if you’re unwilling to write poorly. This means finding places to write: that could be investing in making your emails 50% better by making them shorter and more human; or you could sign up for a site like 750words.com, a private site where you commit to writing every day, just for you.

Imagine having this kind of transparency and accountability about your writing!

Then, stop writing the way we think we are “supposed to” write. It’s hard to pin down when, exactly, business-speak was created (though the Atlantic has a few theories), but the main function of so much passive tense and invented verbs (“downsize” “rationalize” “incentivize”) and catchphrases (“run up the flagpole”) is to obscure rather than to clarify, making your writing worse.

© Scott Adams

Your job isn’t to “increase the frequency of your articulation of stated arguments and objectives through engagement in writing- and writing-related activities,” your job is to “write more often and be more persuasive.” Please, please, write like you speak. We, your readers, want to read something written by another human being, and we experience human-ness when your voice comes across in the words you put down on paper.

To practice, before you hit the “publish” or “send” button, read what you’ve written, to yourself, out loud. Ask yourself: does this come out naturally? Is this how I speak? If not, cut, edit, and replace: remove words, replace words, say things in 5 words instead of 12. In the end, your writing will sound like your spoken voice: clear, simple, natural. Your goal is to express formed thoughts and emotions in as few and as precise words as possible.

Read more. Pick the kind of reading that speaks to you. The more you read the more good writing becomes part of your world. You may even inadvertently start mimicking authors you like, which is fine as a start: over time, your own voice will come out.

In the end, all of this is an investment not just in your writing but in your clarity of thought. It’s a chance to avoid the pessimistic concerns that Orwell describes as the self-reinforcing loop of poor language:

A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.

As we give attention to our writing, we rescue ourselves from our own “foolish” thoughts. Over time, we clarify our own thinking, increase our capacity to persuade, and develop the skill of taking unstructured observations and turning them into clear, structured, persuasive words on the page.